Will Ahn Cheol-soo stop juggernaut?
The opposition camp’s failure to win a parliamentary majority in the Wednesday National Assembly elections is expected to cause an earlier-than-expected race among liberal presidential hopefuls.
At least four contenders are likely to join the race as no opposition politician proved themselves to be strong enough to compete with Park Geun-hye, interim leader of the ruling Saenuri Party and its leading presidential hopeful.
The upset victory has significantly bolstered Park’s standing as the ruling party’s eventual presidential candidate.
Moon Jae-in of the largest opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) would have been emerged as a major rival with proven leadership if the results were different.
In the absence of a leading contender, however, Sohn Hak-kyu, former chairman of the Democratic Party (now the DUP), and Kim Doo-gwan, governor of South Gyeongsang Province and a DUP member, are likely to compete with Moon for the opposition party’s presidential candidacy.
A possible challenger coming from outside the party is Ahn Cheol-soo, a software mogul-turned-Seoul National University professor.
Moon sought to solidify his standing in the DUP through the election by masterminding a sweeping victory in Busan, a longtime stronghold of the conservative ruling party. Despite his avid support, however, the DUP won only two out of 18 constituencies in the country’s second largest city, raising skepticism about his leadership and political clout. Moon was elected in Busan’s Sasang district.
His lackluster performance could lead to an early political debut for Ahn, analysts said. The 50-year-old reform-minded professor is widely viewed as a potential dark horse in the presidential race and has bolstered his support base with an enigmatic approach to the public.
Ahn has remained silent on whether he will vie for the presidency. But he has sporadically made comments indicating his interest in the country’s top job. Some analysts say the DUP’s defeat has created the ideal conditions for Ahn’s debut in politics.
“If the DUP earned the largest-party status, the party would have been gripped by the sentiment that it could win the presidential election without Ahn’s help,” an analyst said. “But now, the DUP needs something new to support it, so Ahn could face increasing pressure to join the party and work for it.”
South Gyeongsang Province Governor Kim is also believed to have strong presidential ambitions. The 53-year-old has carried out political activities in a low profile. But his aides and analysts say he has strong potential to emerge as a leading presidential contender in a short period of time on the back of his staunch support in the province.
The elections proved that the DUP is still weak in Busan and neighboring South Gyeongsang Province. But they say Kim is capable of turning the entire region favorable to him and the DUP by taking advantage of his two-year-long presence there as governor.
Former DP chairman Sohn Hak-kyu has engaged in low key campaigns to shore up support since he stepped down from the post late last year. He didn’t seek reelection Wednesday since, under DUP rules, he has to give up his seat to declare a bid to run for the presidency.