SEOUL -- Exactly one year before South Korea's presidential election, the country's former top prosecutor has emerged as the most likely conservative candidate to become the country's next leader.
Yoon Seok-youl, who resigned as prosecutor general last week, was picked by 32.4% of respondents to a poll published by the Korea Society Opinion Institute on Monday. For the first time, he surpassed left-leaning Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung, who scored 24.1%. Lee had been well ahead of the pack in previous polls.
Yoon quit his post last Friday, citing opposition to President Moon Jae-in's planned reforms of the prosecution system. Although Yoon has not indicated whether he will run, central and conservative political forces are pinning hopes on his candidacy.
The former chief prosecutor is well-known for cracking down on corruption among corporate leaders, including Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong. Yoon's investigation led to the arrest of Lee in 2017 for bribery and embezzlement. He is currently serving a two-and-half year sentence after being convicted in January.
Conservative parties suffered major defeats in last year's mid-term term elections, and before Yoon's rise had no major candidate to stand behind. Jeju Province Governor Won Hee-ryong, a member of the biggest opposition People Party, has declared his intention to run but has been struggling to build support.
Analysts forecast that Yoon will stand at the center of moves to reorganize conservative and center parties. He is a vocal opponent of Moon's handling of a corruption scandal in a state-run land development company.
The presidency is a one-term, five-year post, meaning that Moon will have to step down in May 2022, after the March 9 election next year. As is often the case in South Korean politics, the campaign is shaping up to be a battle between conservative and liberal forces.
Lee, popular among liberal voters, is credited with his leadership in handling the coronavirus pandemic, including his decision to give financial aid to local residents ahead of the central government. He is also popular for his clear language and acts, especially among young people.
But Lee's political base is weak because he is distant from Moon and mainstream members of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea.
DP leader Lee Nak-yon ranked third with 14.9% in the latest poll. He has earned disfavor from party supporters as he said he would call on Moon to pardon disgraced former President Park Geun-hye.
Lee Nak-yon is expected to announce his resignation from his current post on Tuesday because of rules that do not permit the DP leader to be the party's presidential candidate.
The DP is due to hold its primary election in September, and Moon supporters -- the biggest intra-party group -- will be key to the selection of the party's candidate. But no member of the group has emerged as its favorite because several people close to the president have fallen from grace over scandals or other reasons.
One of the group's favorites is Im Jong-seok, a student activist-turned politician and former chief of staff for Moon. Other DP members support Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, who is spearheading the government's fight against COVID-19.
The outcome of the mayoral elections in Seoul and Busan next month are likely to influence political parties' choice of candidate.
If a candidate from the governing camp wins the Seoul election next month, Moon and other DP leaders will be able to take the initiative in choosing the party's presidential candidate. But a win by a critic of the Moon administration will give momentum to center and conservative parties.
Additional reporting by Kim Jaewon in Seoul