With the President Park impeached and currently waiting for trial at the Constitutional Court, the race for the Blue House has become an open battle on both sides of the political domains. The 19th presidential election was scheduled to be held on December 20, 2017, but with President Park’s impeachment by the National Assembly in December last year, various forecasters have predicted that the election will be moved up to somewhere around April or May this year.

The impeachment of President Park, which is just the second time that the President had been impeached by the National Assembly, after former President Roh’s impeachment on May 12, 2004, has led to the first ever possibility for the presidential elections to be held earlier than scheduled since the current Sixth Republic was established in 1987. After 10 years of being in the opposition, the main opposition party The Democratic Party is vying for a reclamation of power to succeed its 10-year rule between 1997 and 2008 which saw two consecutive administrations of former Presidents Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun.

In the forefront of the opposition, the former Democratic Party Leader Moon Jae-In is leading the poll by a comfortable margin. According to the approval rating poll of potential presidential candidates during the second week of January, Moon is leading with 28.1% support over the former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who received 21.8%. Compared to the week before, Moon’s rating increased by 2% while Ban’s support slipped slightly by 0.4%. Moon, who was defeated by President Park in the last 18th presidential election, has been enjoying wide support in the polls for the next presidential elections ever since. Ban was seen as the only challenger to Moon’s dominance but since Ban’s return to Korea, Ban’s support had stayed relatively unchanged around the 20% area while Moon’s support continued to rise towards the 30% mark.

But it is too early to call it a game for Moon. On the surface, Moon’s biggest threat is Ban who is backed heavily by the conservative supporters, but Moon has contenders within his own political domain and they are not ready to make it easy for Moon. The most immediate competitor that Moon will face in the Democratic Party’s primary is Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-Myung. Known for his often outspoken and populist remarks and frequent use of Twitter, Lee has been called by the media as the “Trump of South Korea”. In a poll, Lee was placed in third place at 9% behind Moon Jae-In and Ban Ki-Moon trailing the top two contenders by around 19 and 12% respectively. But Lee has vowed offensively that he is the only one in the opposition that can beat Ban-Ki Moon for presidency. And on January 23, Lee announced his official presidential bid for the 19th presidential election.

Other contenders within the opposition that pose challenges to Moon are Ahn Cheol-Soo of the minor People’s Party with 7.4 percent, the South Chungcheong Governor Ahn Hee-Jung of the Democratic Party with 4%, who declared his presidential campaign on the same day as Lee Jae-Myung, and the Seoul City Mayor Park Won-Soon of the Democratic Party. While the opposition is described as a packed full-house of ‘sleeping dragons’, Ban faces no serious threat to his dominance in the conservative realm with the acting president and prime minister Hwang Kyo-Wan being the closest potential opponent with a mere 4% support. Ironically, it seems as though it’s Moon that has to earn his rightful place as the opposition’s presidential nominee even with his leading position while Ban’s runner up position has already cemented his place as the presidential nominee for the conservative domain.

Furthermore, even with Moon’s win in the Democratic Party’s primary, it is yet unknown whether Moon will be able to gain support from the supporters of Lee Jae-Myung and Ahn Hee-Jung, whom together amass 13% in the approval ratings, a sizeable chunk that could prove to be vital for Moon’s victory for the 19th presidential election. A coalition with the more moderate-leaning People’s Party’s leading contender Ahn Cheol-Soo is also not a guarantee. This unstable nature could see votes slipping towards Ban who has actively tried to position himself as a liberal-conservative, eyeing the votes that are largely in the moderate realm.

Due to the Choi Soon-Sil political scandal that has jeopardised Park’s conservative regime and expelled Park from power, the opposition does have a distinct advantage over the conservatives for the upcoming presidential elections. However, Moon will need to play his cards smartly if he wishes to edge out Ban to become the next president of South Korea.

– Je Seung Lee, Correspondent (Asia: Far East)