Moon Jae-in's "easy win" in the main opposition party's primary opens tough challenges for the former human rights lawyer, as he must strive to forge a single opposition candidacy with entrepreneur-turned-professor Ahn Cheol-soo ahead of the Dec. 19 presidential polls, political watchers said Sunday.
The first-term lawmaker and ex-chief of staff to the late President Roh Moo-hyun secured 56.52 percent of the votes cast in 13 regional primaries of the Democratic United Party (DUP). By winning more than half the votes, Moon dispensed with the need for a run-off election.
Local pollsters have consistently predicted that a DUP candidate and Ahn, the dean of a convergence science graduate school at Seoul National University (SNU), must unite if they want to compete with Rep. Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party, who enjoys solid support from the country's conservatives and older generation.
The 50-year-old Ahn has yet to announce his candidacy, but his spokesman Yoo Min-young said a formal position on the matter will be disclosed after the DUP picks its presidential hopeful.
"A three-way race will all but hand over the presidency to Park because Moon and Ahn will split the opposition-leaning votes in two," a survey expert said. He said even in a one-on-one race with a unified opposition candidate competing with Park, it is hard to predict the winner.
Moon has been cited for a "lack of political ambition" and burdened by the legacy of Roh, who is revered by the country's progressives, but blamed for weak economic performance and alienating many segments of society.
The 59-year-old lawmaker is also plagued by a lack of experience as a politician, although his practical and open-minded image has been an asset in the primary race.
Reflecting this, Moon, who had persistently trailed Ahn, has pulled ahead of his rival in recent polls.
In a hypothetical one-on-one race announced by pollster RealMeter on Tuesday, 44.2 percent of the 1,500 people surveyed nationwide said they supported Moon as the opposition candidate vis-a-vis 34.5 percent for Ahn. This followed another poll conducted a day earlier when the lawmaker approval rating hit 39.5 percent compared to 37.1 percent for his opponent.
Related to the steady rise in popularity, local social network broadcast Wikitree co-founder Kim Haing said judging by past experience, there is enough uncertainty in the race for Moon to firmly take the lead if conditions permit.
"In the 2002 race to secure a unified candidate, initial polls favored Rep. Chung Mong-joon, but under intense attacks carried out by the then ruling Democratic Party, Roh Moo-hyun won run-off election and took the presidency," she said.
Other Moon supporters said Ahn's "weaknesses" are materializing, which could hurt his electability.
Ahn's strength lies with his popularity among young people and urban dwellers, and his pledge to revamp the country's politics, social and economic landscape. The founder of AhnLab, South Korea's largest anti-virus software company, however, has no experience in politics or government administration. In addition, with little of his personal life known to the general public and likely to be the target of scrutiny, his strong support base that has been maintained for over a year could dip if serious evidence materializes that hurts his image.
"Because his popularity is based in part on his clean image and perceived difference with existing politicians, any information that tarnishes this view could hurt his standing," said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University.
Political watchers said allegations that Ahn and his aides are engaged in old-fashioned political machination and are purposely taking steps to divert interest from the DUP's primary is one reason for the dip in popularity.
They said his indecisiveness in announcing his bid is also causing people to grow tired of him.
Moon aides and DUP lawmakers, meanwhile, said with the primary over, the DUP candidate's views toward Ahn have now become that of a potential partner as well as an opponent.
Rep. Rhee Mok-hee, who co-chaired Moon's primary election campaign, said the DUP candidate will increase his public exposure to get his message of change to voters, and to alleviate the public mistrust of politicians that is partly responsible for Ahn's popularity.
He said despite views that Ahn is a partner for the opposition's drive to gain power, he made it clear that the DUP cannot easily give up the candidacy.
"If Moon's popularity goes up and he is viewed as a legitimate competitor in a two-way race with Park, there is no reason why he cannot represent the opposition," the lawmaker stressed.
This view reflects the position by Rep. Yun Ho-jung, the DUP's secretary general who called on Ahn to become a DUP member if he wants to talks about a single candidacy.
"There will be no talks if this precondition is not met," the party official said earlier in the month.
On what measures will be taken to seek a single candidate, a DUP source said "all options are on the table for negotiations" as long as it can win the approval of the people, move the public to vote for the opposition and is acceptable to party loyalists.
Insiders said that options being reviewed include the type of merger reached in 1997 between late President Kim Dae-jung and former Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil. Kim Jong-pil served as the No. 2 man in the Kim administration for his support of the democracy movement leader.
Another option being examined is the creation of a "joint citizens administration" made up of representatives from all factions of society that could result in Moon and Ahn sharing power.
In addition, if no agreement is reached through negotiations, the DUP and Ahn could adhere to the 2002 method of conducting a race with the winner running for president and the loser playing the supporting role. This option is favored by progressives such as Cho Kuk, a law professor at SNU.
"Whatever scenario is followed, supporters who favored either Moon or Ahn may opt not to vote for the unified candidate, which may be particularly true for those that support the dean because these voters are generally disillusioned with politics and hope for sweeping change," a party election analyst said. He said to counteract this, the winner must seek to embrace the loser.
The DUP, moreover, said two or three weeks after the primary is critical for the opposition because it must win the trust of the people and show it has the capability to lead the country if its takes power.
This period is doubly important since Moon will have to mend fences with rivals who lost the primary race as well as handle the "unfair election" allegations raised against party chief Lee Hae-chan and floor leader Park Jie-won. Critics claimed the two leaders favored Moon from the outset and did not rectify concerns surrounding the mobile voting system.
Other measures that must be followed include pushing forward reforms to overhaul the party and allow for more open communication between ordinary members and its leadership.
"Unless Moon wins the trust of the people and is able to push up his popularity in the next few weeks, the road to forging a single candidacy may be a hard one," said Oh Young-sik, who is the chief of the DUP's media strategy office. (Yonhap)