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Politics

South Korea presidential race tightens as Moon rival joins opposition

Former prosecutor general Yoon builds on conservative party's momentum

Former head prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl recently joined South Korea's largest opposition party to run in its presidential primary this fall.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korea's upcoming presidential election has turned into a tightly contested head-to-head race with an ex-prosecutor who initially sought an independent run joining the leading opposition party.

Former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl officially joined the conservative People Power Party this past Friday. He has led opinion polls as the best suited to replace progressive President Moon Jae-in, whose single five-year term ends in 2022.

Yoon announced his candidacy in June, advertising himself as an independent beholden to neither People Power nor Moon's Democratic Party. But he did not take long to change tack.

"In order to effect a change in government, it makes sense to join the largest opposition party and participate in the intraparty election fairly and squarely," Yoon told reporters Friday, referring to People Power's November primary ahead of the March 2022 presidential election.

Yoon's approval rating has taken a hit in some polling as reformists accuse his wife, Kim Keon-hee, of corruption and criticize her premarital life.

Winning a lengthy presidential campaign generally requires the funding and organizational capacity that only a large, established political party can provide. It is in this light that Yoon has decided to join a party sooner than expected.

Fourteen candidates are expected to participate in the People Power primary. Choe Jae-hyeong, a former chief auditor, is expected to announce his candidacy Wednesday. Choe has pushed back against Moon's plans to shut down nuclear plants. There are those who see Choe as a steadier hand than the scandal-tainted Yoon.

Top polling organizations are split on which party is ahead. Gallup Korea put the Democratic Party at 35% and People Power at 28% in a late-July survey. But People Power was 1.6 points ahead in a Realmeter poll around that time.

People Power and its predecessors have struggled to stay relevant since 2017, when Moon was first elected. The party lost by a landslide in the 2020 general election and even apologized that December for previous leaders' transgressions.

Its fortunes started to change this year with mayoral election victories in Seoul and Busan. People Power later made a splash by electing 36-year-old technology entrepreneur Lee Jun-seok as its new leader -- a move that did much to signal a clean break.

Contributing heavily to the Democratic mayoral losses were failures in the ruling government's real estate policies as well as improprieties by public officials, which drove younger voters away from the Democrats.

But it is not clear whether the Democrats' loss is People Power's gain. Swing voters in urban areas will ultimately decide the March presidential election.

The Democratic presidential primary takes place this October, the month before People Power's. Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung is the front-runner, followed by former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon.

The two Lees sit outside the party's pro-Moon mainstream and have been ripping into each other's records and past comments as they vie for that faction's support. Alliances by candidates could also tilt the balance of a runoff if no one secures a majority in the first round.

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