Provincial leader surges ahead in S. Korean polls

While Mr An is picking up support from older voters, he has also courted younger ones. Supporters have nicknamed him the "EXO of South Chungcheong", after a popular K-pop band.
While Mr An is picking up support from older voters, he has also courted younger ones. Supporters have nicknamed him the "EXO of South Chungcheong", after a popular K-pop band.

Governor seen as down-to-earth presidential candidate, which serves him well in nation roiled by Park's scandal

SEOUL • A provincial governor nicknamed after a leading boy band is surging in South Korean presidential polls, following former United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon's announcement that he would not run in the coming election.

Governor An Hee Jung is seen as a down-to-earth, uncomplicated politician, traits that could serve him well in a nation roiled by the impeachment of President Park Geun Hye.

If the Constitutional Court upholds the impeachment, an election would be held in 60 days.

"I want to be a president who would put up a basketball hoop in the yard of the Blue House and play basketball with aides," Mr An, a youthful-looking 51-year-old, said in a recent interview, referring to the presidential compound.

The image is in contrast to Ms Park's. The 64-year-old was perceived as isolated and aloof even before the corruption crisis that was to envelop her presidency erupted last year.

RIGHT CANDIDATE

We need someone to unite our country. As a liberal, he succeeded in a two-term governorship in a conservative region, which means his ability and sincerity are recognised by the opposition.

MR LEE EUI GO, who runs a small business on the outskirts of Seoul, on Mr An.

None of her prospective successors has a commanding lead in polls, but Mr An has scored the biggest increase in ratings since Mr Ban's undeclared candidacy fizzled last month, vaulting into second place from as far back as fifth less than a month ago.

A Gallup Korea poll showed Mr An closing the gap on fellow Democratic Party member Moon Jae In, who leads 29 per cent to 19 per cent. Last week, Mr Moon led 32-10.

Mr Ban was expected to stand on a moderate-to-conservative platform, while Mr An is a Democrat but has positioned himself as a centrist. As a two-term governor of South Chungcheong province, the same area Mr Ban is from, Mr An is picking up regional support and backing from older voters who tend to lean towards conservative.

Mr An has also courted younger voters who have been demoralised over job prospects in a sluggish economy and have been leading weekly rallies for Ms Park's ouster.

Mr An has appeared on entertainment shows, singing a hit song on one of them. His Instagram postings include a soap opera parody photo and a New Year video message featuring his cat.

Supporters have nicknamed him the "EXO of South Chungcheong", after a popular K-pop band.

Mr An was an aide to former president Roh Moo Hyun, a liberal, while Mr Moon was Mr Roh's chief of staff.

To contest the presidency, Mr An would need to beat Mr Moon, a 64-year-old who is more left-leaning, in a primary unless he leaves the Democrats to form a coalition with others, which he has shown no inclination to do.

Still, his centrist positioning could get him support from conservatives who are lacking a clear standard-bearer.

"We need someone to unite our country," said Mr Lee Eui Go, who runs a small business on the outskirts of Seoul and is a supporter of Mr An.

"As a liberal, he succeeded in a two-term governorship in a conservative region, which means his ability and sincerity are recognised by the opposition."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline 'Provincial leader surges ahead in S. Korean polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe