Ahn, Ban prompt talk of ‘Third Zone’ for 2017

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Ahn, Ban prompt talk of ‘Third Zone’ for 2017

The idea of finding a new political force outside the conservatives-versus-liberals establishment has gained momentum after Ahn Cheol-soo, former chairman of the People’s Party, promoted the idea Monday of a so-called “Third Zone” for next year’s presidential election.

Following April’s general election and subsequent leadership elections, the ruling Saenuri Party is controlled by loyalists of President Park Geun-hye and the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea is dominated by supporters of the presidential candidate she defeated, Moon Jae-in. A new idea is that political forces outside those factions could abandon their parties, unite and field a presidential candidate.

The local media has identified Ahn, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former Minjoo Party advisor Sohn Hak-kyu as possible Third Zone candidates.

“Everyone who agrees to reasonable reforms, except for the two extreme groups, must work together,” Ahn told reporters on Monday. “For them to compete on a level playing field, I will accept any terms.”

Ahn stressed that the People’s Party would be the main stakeholder of any Third Zone that arose.

“The People’s Party, in the end, is the owner of the Third Zone, because the voters made us that through the general election,” he said. April’s general election was an enormous victory for Ahn and the People’s Party, which became the third largest power in the National Assembly and ended decades of political rule by two main parties, one liberal and the other conservative.

In an interview with the Chosun Ilbo on Sunday, Ahn discussed the Third Zone candidate issue.

“I am not sure what format it will be, but I will positively review all proposals,” he said. “Of course, those who will compete here [in the Third Zone] must give up their original party affiliations.”

Ahn briefly ran in the 2012 presidential election, but dropped out of the race after being outmaneuvered by Moon in negotiations to consolidate the two liberal candidacies. Ahn bowed out and threw lukewarm support to Moon. Moon was narrowly defeated by Park.

The idea of a Third Zone candidate received traction after Ban spoke last week about his future plans. Ban said he will return to Korea as soon as his UN tenure ends at the end of this year. He also said he will address the Korean People in January after his return, fueling speculation that he will run in the 2017 presidential election.

Although he has never formally declared a bid, Ban, a former foreign minister who hails from North Chungcheong, has consistently topped domestic polls as the most favored presidential contender.

Speculation grew in the political arena that Ban has two choices. One is joining the Saenuri Party after his return and competing in a primary to become the ruling party’s presidential candidate. Park loyalists have overtly expressed their hope to recruit Ban.

The other is staying in the Third Zone to create a new political force and eventually consolidating his candidacy with a Saenuri candidate - meaning one would have to drop out to avoid splitting conservative votes.

Both options have risks and rewards. If he joins the Saenuri Party, he will be labeled as the Park faction’s candidate. If he stays in the Third Zone, he will have to operate a campaign without established party support.

After Ban said he will return to Korea in early January, one of his key associates told the JoongAng Ilbo that Ban will likely choose to join the Saenuri Party.

“Ban had many thoughts about the conservative victory in next year’s presidential election, so he will likely join the ruling party,” he said. “In that case, he won’t hesitate to run in the ruling party’s primary.”

The source said Ban was advised by many that he must run in the presidential election as the legitimate candidate of the conservative Saenuri Party by winning endorsements from not only the Park loyalists but also other members of the party.
Sohn, a former Gyeonggi governor who left politics after losing a legislative by-election in July 2014, has declared his intention to return. Since his defeat, Sohn has been living in Gangjin, South Jeolla.

In a lecture in Gwangju on Sept. 2, Sohn basically declared a presidential bid by saying, “I will not fear death and I will sacrifice myself to save this country.”

Sohn is a former political scientist who joined politics in 1992 by becoming a lawmaker of the conservative ruling Democratic Liberal Party, a predecessor of the Saenuri Party. He served as a lawmaker, health minister and Gyeonggi governor with the conservative party.

To realize his presidential dream, he left the party in 2007 and joined the main liberal opposition party. In 2007 and 2012, he ran in liberal primaries and was defeated. He is still a Minjoo member.

The People’s Party is making aggressive efforts to recruit him. Rep. Park Jie-won, acting chairman, and Ahn repeatedly visited Sohn in South Jeolla and asked him to join their party. Sohn made no public response.

A Sohn associate said Sohn wants to create a new political framework and it’s unlikely he’ll join an existing political party.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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