10 years apart, single candidacy talks have similarities, differences
By Chung Min-uck
Historians can argue forever whether history is a series of changes or repetitions. The debate becomes more interesting when the samples are limited to Korean presidential elections in the new millennium.
Moon Jae-in, presidential candidate of the opposition Democratic United Party (DUP), and Ahn Cheol-soo, a popular independent contender, are engaged in a desperate effort to merge their candidacies and improve the chances of a liberal candidate defeating Park Geun-hye, the candidate of the conservative ruling party, Saenuri.
This reminds voters of the times when former President Roh Moo-hyun, the last DUP candidate to reach Cheong Wa Dae, held tight to a unified front with independent candidate and billionaire Hyundai scion Chung Mong-joon in the presidential race of 2002. The always-fragile union between Roh and Chung collapsed on the eve of the polls. Moon and Ahn could only hope to avoid a similar last-minute implosion.
The single candidacy talks between Moon and Ahn have been shelved for now, with Ahn accusing his friend-or-foe of sneakiness and rumor-mongering to gain an edge in the competition between them.
Roh and Chung had their own issues as they attempted to form a united front against conservative heavyweight Lee Hoi-chang. Chung then complained that Roh leaked to the media the rules for candidate selection discussed between them before any decision was finalized.
Moon and Ahn's dispute is also essentially about ground rules. The competition between the two will likely come down to a public opinion poll. But the camps have struggled to agree on who to quiz and what to ask them.
Moon says the survey should be more about finding a candidate who better represents liberal political values and priorities. He also calls for an open primary-like process to complement the opinion poll to enable more voters to participate in the process. Ahn on the other hand simply insists whoever has the better shot at defeating Park should be given the chance to do so and prefers the opinion poll to be decisive.
With recent surveys showing his edge over Moon in the public approval narrowing, Ahn has shown more touchiness. He accused Moon's camp of spreading false rumors about him conceding the candidacy to the DUP candidate over the survey results, something Moon has strongly denied.
One thing Moon and Ahn managed to agree on is a televised presidential debate. Roh and Chung managed to do this as well after the negotiations between was resumed with much difficulty. The television debate was followed with an opinion poll that Roh won by a slim margin to claim the driver's seat over Chung. Chung later backed off from his support of Roh on the day before the election, although this didn't keep Roh from winning.
Political observers believe the television debate will have a critical influence in setting the fate of the Moon-Ahn competition as well.
"In an electoral alliance, a candidate who has party-based support always has the upper hand as one can fully mobilize their nation-wide party members," said Yoon Hee-woong, a senior fellow of the polling agency the Korea Society Opinion Institute.
"Ahn will eventually come back to the negotiation table as, like in 2002, the two sides know they will lose to the conservative candidate if they decide to run separately. Ahn also used the word ‘temporal' halt. So to say, the ongoing situation is not a good sign for Ahn."
Ahn's support rating fell substantially after agreeing to unify candidacy last week. In a two-way hypothetical race conducted by pollster Realmeter during the weekends, Moon scored 45.4 percent, whereas, Ahn, recorded 34.8 percent allowing the DUP candidate to take over his position as the leading opposition candidate.
In 2002, Roh's popularity also surpassed Chung's after announcing their merger, eventually leading to his victory.
Meanwhile, experts say the Ahn and Moon will have to find a new way of delivering "emotionally-touching impressions" to voters in terms of the ongoing process for the unified candidacies in order to defeat Park in December election.
"The voters already have seen a move for a single candidacy among the political rivals in the 2002 presidential election, and they may be not impressed by such a move this time," said Bae Jong-chan, a director at Research and Research, a local research firm.
"What Moon and Ahn need is to come up with something new that can move the voters' heart in their steps toward the unified candidacy. The situation now doesn't seem to be a positive signal to them."