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(News Focus) Presidential election one month away with no clear front-runner

Politics 07:00 February 08, 2022

By Lee Haye-ah

SEOUL, Feb. 8 (Yonhap) -- The presidential election is one month away with no clear front-runner in polls as questions about the ethics of leading candidates and their ability to navigate the country out of a pandemic have led many swing voters to postpone their choice.

The March 9 election has shaped up largely to be a two-way race between ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung of the liberal Democratic Party (DP) and main opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party (PPP).

Lee Jae-myung (L), the presidential nominee of the ruling Democratic Party, poses with Yoon Suk-yeol, the nominee of the main opposition People Power Party, during a TV debate held at a KBS TV studio in Seoul on Feb. 3, 2022. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

For weeks, polls have shown the two candidates running neck and neck with support of over 30 percent each -- a range that has been hard to surpass amid lingering questions about Lee's suspected involvement in a massive development corruption scandal and Yoon's wife's alleged lying on resumes and suspected ties to shamanism.

In the seven polls conducted by Gallup Korea since November, after both candidates were nominated by their respective parties, the gap between the two remained within the margin of error five times, including in the most recent poll conducted Jan. 25-27. In the latest poll, the two were tied at 35 percent each.

Twice, the difference was outside the margin, with Yoon leading Lee 42 percent to 31 percent in a Nov. 16-18 poll, and with Lee leading Yoon 36 percent to 26 percent in a Jan. 4-6 poll.

Analysts say the close race is attributable to the large number of swing voters comprised of moderates and young people in their 20s and 30s. According to polls, voters in their 40s and 50s are more in favor Lee, while those older than 60 are more in favor of Yoon.

A key consideration for swing voters will likely be the ethical issues attached to each candidate and their families, with the rival campaigns continuing to exchange blows over new damning revelations about their opponent.

Over the Lunar New Year holiday, which was expected to serve as a barometer of public sentiment because of its tradition of family reunions, Lee's wife was hit with allegations that she abused her husband's status as then governor of Gyeonggi Province to inappropriately use public servants and corporate cards last year.

A game-changer would likely be a merger of candidacies between Yoon and Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People's Party.

Ahn, whose support ratings have climbed to double digits in recent weeks, has publicly ruled out a merger unless he emerges as the unified opposition candidate. But pressure has been building to yield to Yoon to ensure a clear victory over Lee.

Presidential TV debates have also emerged as a potential deciding factor for voters.

Last week's first debate posted a viewership rating of 39 percent, demonstrating the high level of interest in the debates. Three more have been scheduled for later this month and early March.

Although this will be South Korea's second nationwide election since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the circumstances are different from the first one held in April 2020 to elect members of the National Assembly.

The ruling party won that election by a landslide in what was seen as a vote of confidence in the government's pandemic response and a call for national unity during an unprecedented crisis.

But this year, the public has grown weary from ongoing pandemic restrictions, and the government's response has failed to stop the explosive growth in COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant.

"The increase in cases could hurt the ruling party, but if there is a momentary and heightened sense of crisis, it doesn't have to be that way," Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University in Seoul, said.

Yu Yong-wha, a visiting professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said the resurgence of the virus may be less of a factor in itself, as voters will "cast their ballots for the candidate who is able to present a new future and vision" amidst the crisis.

The pandemic response has been a central part of both Lee and Yoon's campaign pledges. Lee has said if elected, he will invoke an emergency order to provide 50 trillion won (US$41.7 billion) in assistance to small merchants hit by the pandemic.

Yoon's party, meanwhile, has called for increasing the government's extra budget proposal of 14 trillion won to 50 trillion won to compensate the losses of small businesses.

Yoon has taken a tough stance on issues of national security and foreign policy, suggesting the need for a preemptive strike on North Korea in the event of an imminent threat and the deployment of additional units of the U.S. THAAD antimissile system in South Korea to counter North Korea's growing missile threats.

Lee and his party have balked at the ideas, likening Yoon to a warmonger and expressing alarm at the enormous price South Korea would have to pay in the event China wages another economic retaliation campaign against Seoul's additional deployment of THAAD.

Lee has described his own foreign policy goals as being based on pragmatism. He has called for achieving "de facto" reunification with North Korea in the short term and using a mixture of pressure and diplomacy to get the North to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

Yoon has pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in an attempt to woo male voters in their 20s and 30s who have complained of gender discrimination.

Lee has vowed to expand the national health insurance system to cover the cost of treatment for hair loss, an idea that generated a huge response from the public but was also criticized by his opponents as being populist.

This compilation image shows (from L to R) presidential candidates Lee Jae-myung, Yoon Suk-yeol, Sim Sang-jeung and Ahn Cheol-soo. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

hague@yna.co.kr
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