South Korea conservatives are set to pick presidential nominee

Top concerns among South Korean voters are high urban housing prices and an inequality gap worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - South Korea's main conservative opposition party picks its candidate Friday (Nov 5) for a presidential election in March, with its two front-runners promising to take a tough line on North Korea and rein in runaway real estate prices.

The People Power Party (PPP) is expected to announce results at around 2.45pm (1.45pm Singapore time) of its nomination process that included four days of primary voting.

The ballots were divided between the public and party members and weighted so both groups had an equal say in selecting the bloc's candidate to contest the ruling Democratic Party's Lee Jae-myung, who won his nomination last month.

The country is heading into one of its most open presidential races since its advent into full democracy in the late 1980s.

Top concerns among voters are high urban housing prices and an inequality gap worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic and highlighted in the TV series "Squid Game."

The top two contenders in the PPP race are Mr Hong Joon-pyo, an advocate for a nuclear-armed South Korea who lost in a 2017 presidential bid, and former prosecutor general Yoon Seok-youl, who rose to national prominence for probing corruption in the government of current President Moon Jae-in.

Mr Hong has vowed to scrap a landmark 2018 military deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un if elected, potentially putting one of Mr Moon's biggest achievements on the ballot.

He's also warned of a potential collapse in the housing market and a spike in bankruptcies as interest rates rise, adding that the current level of fiscal spending is unsustainable.

Mr Yoon has positioned himself as more moderate than Mr Hong. While he has said he would increase pressure on Pyongyang, Mr Yoon has also recruited Mr Lee Do-hoon, Mr Moon's former special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs - signalling he's open to diplomacy with Mr Kim's regime.

But Mr Yoon, a relative newcomer to national politics, has suffered gaffes on the campaign trail, including remarks that seemed to defend former President Chun Doo-hwan, a military strongman responsible for crushing a pro-democracy uprising in 1980 in Gwangju with deadly force.

Mr Yoon apologised after saying last month that Chun "did well in politics."

In a survey by the Korea Society Opinion Institute published Monday, Mr Hong was ahead of Mr Yoon by a margin 38.6 per cent to 34 per cent. A potential two-way battle between Mr Yoon and Mr Lee was a virtual dead heat, KSOI's polling indicated, while Mr Lee had a one percentage point lead in a potential match with Mr Hong.

South Korean presidents serve a single, five-year term. The PPP is trying to return a conservative to power after the group was sent into the political wilderness about five years ago following graft scandals for its last two presidents, one of whom, Park Geun-Hye, was removed from office after being impeached in 2016.

Mr Lee, the governor of South Korea's most populous province, has campaigned on a platform of universal basic income, sweeping reforms and widely expanding the social safety net. He took aim at the PPP contenders this week in officially launching his campaign.

"We cannot forfeit the fate of this country to a candidate who lacks in philosophy, historic knowledge and preparation," Mr Lee said Tuesday. "We cannot leave the country to the hands of a regressive political bloc that disparages Gwangju, insists on nuclear armament, and promotes inter-Korean tensions."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.