Uphill battle for S. Korean ruling party's candidate

Mr Hong at yesterday's convention where he was named the Liberty Korea Party's presidential candidate.
Mr Hong at yesterday's convention where he was named the Liberty Korea Party's presidential candidate.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Promising to be South Korea's "resolute strongman", prosecutor- turned-politician Hong Joon Pyo, a well-known critic of ousted president Park Geun Hye, has been named the ruling party's representative for the upcoming presidential election.

The 62-year-old governor of south-eastern South Gyeongsang province, a conservative stronghold, secured 54 per cent of the vote over three of his rivals in the Liberty Korea Party's (LKP) primary yesterday but is expected to face an uphill battle. Opinion polls show the liberal opposition's Mr Moon Jae In, from the Democratic Party, maintaining a strong lead.

"I will become a confident president and work towards stabilising the country and making Korea an affluent country," Mr Hong said in his acceptance speech at the conservative party's national convention.

He pledged to unify the conservative camp, in shambles after Ms Park's impeachment over a corruption and influence-peddling scandal, as well as maintain a hardline approach to nuclear-armed North Korea, create a more business- friendly environment in the country, and make life better for the people. Official campaigning for the May 9 election starts on April 9.

The race to the top could be a multi-cornered fight among five parties and an independent candidate, former spy chief Nam Jae Joon.

But pundits say it will most likely come down to Mr Moon, a former human rights lawyer, and former software tycoon Ahn Cheol Soo of the centrist opposition People's Party, if they both win their party's final primaries, due early next week.

Experts say it will be hard for the LKP to win support from a nation deeply disappointed in the party that failed to keep Ms Park in check, even though Mr Hong is known as a harsh critic of the former leader who was arrested yesterday on charges that include bribery and abuse of authority.

Mr Hong once called Ms Park an "inept" leader too easily fooled by her confidante Choi Soon Sil. Prosecutors have accused Ms Park of colluding with Choi to extort money from conglomerates under the guise of donations, in return for business favours, and of abusing her power to allow Choi to meddle in state affairs.

Political commentator David Lee noted Ms Park's failure dealt the ruling party a heavy blow and will inevitably affect Mr Hong's campaign too.

"As the governor of South Gyeongsang, Hong Joon Pyo is a very influential man. But his low support rate is the problem," said Mr Lee, referring to opinion polls that placed Mr Hong far behind Mr Moon and Mr Ahn in approval ratings.

It does not help that he is a controversial figure who was embroiled in a huge corruption scandal and sentenced to 18 months in prison for bribery last year. He successfully appealed in February and has not served any jail time.

The tough talker made the unpopular decision to end free school lunches in his province in 2015, and was compared to Adolf Hitler for closing a 103-year-old loss-making medical centre in 2013.

Butspeculation has grown that the LKP may form a coalition with the splinter Bareun Party, or even the People's Party, to run a more effective campaign against Mr Moon.

There is also talk of the LKP bowing out at the last minute to prompt conservatives to vote for Mr Ahn, deemed a more neutral candidate.

"There are so many variables in this presidential election," said Mr Lee. "Moon Jae In is No. 1 in opinion polls but actual voting can be different. Ahn Cheol Soo can also become the final victor if he gains momentum in the next two weeks."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2017, with the headline 'Uphill battle for S. Korean ruling party's candidate'. Print Edition | Subscribe