April 7, 2017 3:15 am JST

Centrist Ahn quickly gaining support in South Korea election

Clear focus on security draws people uneasy with liberal front-runner Moon

SOTARO SUZUKI, Nikkei staff writer

The South Korean election will likely turn into a battle between liberal Moon Jae-in, left, and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo, right.

SEOUL -- As the South Korean presidential race heats up ahead of the May 9 election, former People's Party co-chair Ahn Cheol-soo is rapidly closing in on front-runner Moon Jae-in by attracting voters who oppose the latter's liberal policy ideas.

Six candidates remain in the race, including South Gyeongsang Gov. Hong Joon-pyo for the leading conservative Liberty Korea Party and lawmaker Yoo Seong-min for the splinter Bareun Party.

Moon, representing the Democratic Party of Korea, remains in the lead with 38.4% support, according to a poll conducted Tuesday and Wednesday by conservative daily JoongAng Ilbo. But the former head of the leading opposition party has gained only 3.7 points since the last poll taken March 18 and 19. Ahn, on the other hand, has surged from 13% to 34.9%.

His rapid ascent is due in part to South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung's defeat in the Democratic Party primaries. While progressive, Ahn Hee-jung nevertheless had called for a pragmatic approach to policy, such as going forward with the decision to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile shield in South Korea despite vocal opposition from China. He was the second most popular candidate in the March 18-19 poll.

Moon won the Democratic Party's nomination by a wide margin. But Ahn Hee-jung's supporters now seem to be rallying behind Ahn Cheol-soo instead of their own party's candidate. About 60% of them now support Ahn Cheol-soo, while just 20% or so back Moon, according to the JoongAng Ilbo.

When asked whom they would support in a one-on-one race, 50.7% of all respondents said Ahn while 42.7% said Moon. A poll by news channel YTN showed similar results. Ahn is becoming the standard-bearer for all who oppose Moon, such as conservatives who are concerned by the liberal candidate's conciliatory stance toward North Korea.

Ahn's growing popularity has emboldened him. The centrist candidate told reporters Thursday that he will not seek cooperation with conservative parties.

He has shown a clear interest in security issues. Ahn's stance on THAAD is that the agreement with the U.S. to deploy the missile defense system should be honored. Here he starkly contrasts with Moon, who evasively said the next administration should make the final decision on THAAD.

Ahn is also critical of a 2015 agreement with Japan that was designed to put an end to the issue of wartime "comfort women." The previous government of deposed President Park Geun-hye signed the deal on its own without input from the women, he said. He wants to renegotiate a deal that better reflects their position.

While Moon still enjoys steadfast loyalty among South Korea's progressives, he has started making efforts to woo conservative voters as Ahn gains momentum.

Shortly after winning the Democratic Party's nomination, Moon visited the Seoul National Cemetery to pay his respects to South Korea's deceased leaders. When he ran in the 2012 presidential election, he only visited the grave of former President Kim Dae-jung, who led the democratization of the country.

On Thursday, he visited steelmaker Posco's Gwangyang works, demonstrating his focus on the business community.

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