April 1, 2017 5:30 am JST

Park's arrest boosts Moon, top liberal presidential hopeful

Conservatives struggle to catch up in South Korean special election

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL -- Moon Jae-in, the liberal frontrunner in South Korea's presidential race set for May 9, is gaining momentum in light of impeached President Park Geun-hye's arrest, as public opinion hardens over the last nine years under two conservative presidents.

This is not the time for forgiveness, South Gyeongsang Province Gov. Hong Joon-pyo, the chosen candidate for Park's own Liberty Korea Party, said Friday. Nobody in the party supports Park anymore, he stressed. The rise of an opposing faction even within her conservative base is another defeat for the disgraced president and her supporters.

Roughly 70% of South Koreans wanted Park to be arrested, according to various opinion polls. The people, frustrated with the current political landscape and the cozy relationship between the government and big business, are calling for a government overhaul.

The largest opposition Democratic Party of Korea, which Moon once led, has a decisive lead over centrist and conservative parties with 45% support, according to a poll published Friday by Gallup Korea. Moon himself has 31% approval, more than 10 points ahead of his closest rival. Park's arrest is only expected to boost the liberal candidate, who enjoys strong support among the younger and middle-aged generations.

On the other hand, the arrest has dealt a further blow to the already struggling conservatives. Hong is polling at just 4%. Even combined with Yoo Seong-min, the candidate for the splinter Bareun Party, they only have 6% of overall support.

Many conservatives are uneasy with Moon, and the candidate is struggling to appeal to a wider base. Some expect the conservatives and centrists to rally behind Ahn Cheol-soo, the former co-chair of the centrist People's Party, who has emerged second to Moon at 19%.

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