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(Yearender) Presidential race kicks off but winner remains elusive

All News 07:00 December 16, 2021

By Lee Haye-ah

SEOUL, Dec. 16 (Yonhap) -- The presidential race got under way in 2021, setting up a competition between two leading candidates whose lack of political experience proved to be both a liability and an asset.

Lee Jae-myung, the ruling Democratic Party (DP) nominee, is an outspoken and aggressive former governor of the country's most populous Gyeonggi Province, who previously served as the mayor of a city in the suburbs of Seoul and before that, as a lawyer.

Yoon Suk-yeol, the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) nominee, was the Moon Jae-in government's prosecutor general until the start of the year before a major falling out with the administration caused him to bolt and join hands with the opposition.

Lee Jae-myung (L), the presidential nominee of the ruling Democratic Party, shakes hands with Yoon Suk-yeol, the nominee of the main opposition People Power Party, during a forum at a hotel in Seoul on Nov. 24, 2021. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

The rise of the two candidates was seen as a reflection of the public's disillusionment with the political establishment. Despite being a member of the Democratic Party, Lee is not a member of the pro-Moon faction that, together with the administration, has been blamed for failed policies, especially in real estate.

Yoon, meanwhile, came to symbolize the antithesis of the Moon administration by repeatedly clashing with members of the government. As an incumbent prosecutor with a track record of standing up to power, he was also seen as a leader in the pursuit of justice.

The candidates' novelty, however, also presented them with challenges, the biggest of which was the high level of scrutiny they faced, unlike their more established colleagues.

"Because they are non-mainstream newcomers, the vetting process is bound to be intense," Hong Hyeng-sik, director of the pollster Hangil Research, said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency.

"And as both sides engaged in negative campaigning, subjecting the candidates to an unprecedented amount of vetting, the public's initial good feelings toward them quickly turned sour," he said.

Lee Jae-myung, the presidential nominee of the ruling Democratic Party, gives a thumbs-up to merchants and locals at a traditional market in the southeastern city of Pohang on Dec. 13, 2021. (Yonhap)

Lee was hit with allegations of giving special favors to an obscure asset management company that invested in an apartment development project in Seongnam, south of Seoul, when he served as the city's mayor in 2015.

The company reaped 1,000 times its investment in profits, leading to the indictments of key figures in the case, but Lee maintained his claims of innocence.

Yoon, on the other hand, has been embroiled in a political scandal accusing him of using his influence as the then prosecutor general to try to prosecute leading ruling party figures ahead of the 2020 parliamentary elections.

He also continues to be dogged by allegations his wife and mother-in-law manipulated stock prices and committed fraud.

As the rival campaigns step up their political attacks, both candidates appear to have suffered in public opinion polls.

In the weeks leading up to the PPP's nomination of Yoon in early November, Lee often had the strongest showing in polls. After Yoon's nomination, the PPP candidate led his rival by as much as 13 percentage points.

By this month, however, the results were mixed.

One survey by the Korea Society Opinion Institute found the candidates to be neck and neck at 42 percent for Yoon and 40.6 percent for Lee. The poll was conducted on 1,004 voters from Dec. 10-11 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.

Yoon Suk-yeol (C), the presidential nominee of the main opposition People Power Party, attends a talk show hosted by his campaign at a coffee shop in Seoul on Dec. 14, 2021. (Yonhap)

Hong, the analyst, said it may be another month or so before a clear front-runner emerges despite the election being less than three months away on March 9.

Yoon's campaign committee officially launched last week, while Lee's recently underwent a reorganization, meaning both candidates have had a full-fledged campaign for only a few weeks.

Also, according to Hong, both candidates have yet to present a vision for the future that resonates with the public.

After all, the biggest election issues this year were stabilizing high real estate prices and achieving a fair society.

The middle class was the group most affected by skyrocketing home prices under the Moon administration, while young people in their 20s and 30s, many of whom were struggling to find jobs, desired a fair society ruled by common sense.

On both counts, the Moon government suffered a huge blow in March following revelations that employees at the state-run housing developer, the Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH), had used insider information to buy plots of land ahead of their planned development.

That month, Moon's approval rating fell to 34.1 percent, an all-time low for the president up to that point, while support for the DP also dropped to 28.1 percent, its lowest since the start of the administration, according to a survey by Realmeter.

The April mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan delivered landslide victories for the PPP, buoyed in large part by voters in their 20s and 30s who had previously thrown their weight behind the DP in the 2017 presidential election.

Right now, Hong said, both camps fall far short of the public's expectations.

"If one of them can put forward a campaign pledge that can win the enthusiastic support of the public, it's possible the gap between the two candidates will sharply increase," he said.

"It all comes down to housing and a fair society," he said of the needed pledges, "and jobs, especially for voters in their 20s and 30s."

hague@yna.co.kr
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