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Politics

South Korean conservatives plot comeback in Seoul mayoral race

Opposition faces headwind as President Moon benefits from North Korea thaw

Voters in Seoul will elect their new mayor on June 13.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean political parties are gearing up for an electoral fight in the nation's capital that will test whether the conservative opposition can stay relevant under popular progressive President Moon Jae-in. 

Ahn Cheol-soo, a member of the center-right Bareun Future Party who ran against Moon for the Blue House last year, announced Wednesday his intention to run for mayor of Seoul in the election on June 13.

The party was created in February through a merger between the People's Party, which Ahn had led, and another group.

Ahn's entry has set up what looks to be a three-way race pitting a nominee from the ruling progressive Democratic Party against two conservative party candidates.

Park Won-soon, the incumbent mayor, is locked in a primary battle against two other Democratic hopefuls. The party will nominate its candidate later this month.

Also expected to run for the mayor's seat is Kim Moon-soo, the one-time governor of the surrounding Gyeonggi Province, representing Liberty Korea Party, the staunchly conservative main opposition party.

Ahn Cheol-soo announced Wednesday his candidacy for Seoul's mayoral seat. Photo by Momoko Kidera

South Korean conservatives found themselves in the political wilderness after the corruption scandal that led to the impeachment and arrest of then-Presdident Park Geun-hye last year.

Ahn, a software-entrepreneur-turned-politician, stood neck-and-neck with candidate Moon early in the presidential election that followed. But he stumbled during televised debates, eventually finishing third at the ballot box.  

Now in office, Moon maintains a 70% approval rating attributed in part to thawing relations with North Korea, which he wooed to join the Winter Olympics. Meanwhile, conservatives have sustained further damage from last month's arrest of former President Lee Myung-bak on bribery charges. The ruling camp appears to be the favorite to win not just the Seoul mayoral election, but also other local races taking place in June.

Conservatives' political strategy for the next four years will be tested in these races. Beyond that, the next National Assembly elections are due in 2020, followed by the presidential election in 2022, which will end Moon's time in office. South Korean presidents can only serve one term.

Ahn hopes to rally conservatives in the Seoul area to his side by running a tight race against the progressive candidate for mayor. But if he fails to draw independent voters, he risks a poor showing caused by a split in the conservative vote.

During the previous regional elections held in 2014, progressives won nine out of 17 races for governorships and metropolitan mayorships against conservatives. Due to a vacancy, there are now seven conservative incumbents. Whether conservatives can hold on to those seats will provide a gauge of voter sentiment.

Besides Seoul, key battlegrounds to watch are the governorship of South Gyeongsang Province, where one of Moon's close associates is running; the mayoral election in Moon's home ground of Busan; and the Incheon mayoral race, where the conservative incumbent was close to ex-President Park.

Conservatives are under fire even in South Chungcheong Province, where the progressives have been dealt a setback. Ahn Hee-jung, once considered a favorite to succeed Moon, stepped down as governor last month amid allegations that he sexually assaulted a secretary.

Liberty Korea has put up Rhee In-je, a former cabinet minister and presidential candidate, to run for the open seat, but progressives are belittling his campaign as the return of the old conservative guard.

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