Candidates in their 50s struggle to overcome ageist views

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Candidates in their 50s struggle to overcome ageist views

When Roh Moo-hyun beat the odds to become the head of state by defeating rival Lee Hoi-chang in the 2002 race, he was 56-years-old, the youngest person to become president since 1987 when the country re-adopted a direct-presidential election after decades of military rule.

Except for Roh, all five other former and incumbent presidents since 1987 took office in their 60s and 70s. The oldest person to have taken the office was Kim Dae-jung, who was 73 when he became president in 1997.

With their sights set on recapturing Roh’s legacy, 50-somethings across the political aisle are gearing up to launch campaigns to repeat Roh’s 2002 political drama while the current presidential race is between 64-year-old Moon Jae-in and 72-year-old former UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

While the two rivals are leading in most polls, with Moon ahead of Ban with a more than 10-percent gap in recent polls, politicians such as South Chungcheong Governor An Hee-jung, Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung and Gyeonggi Governor Nam Kyung-pil officially declared their bids for presidency, all boasting their relatively young age as a strong advantage over the two frontrunners.

“With conventional thoughts and behavior, one can never turn the country toward reform,” said the 52-year-old Gyeonggi governor in his bid declaration on Wednesday. “A leader who knows how to read into the future and make the most out of it must step forward.”

Touching on young leadership as a competitive edge has been a recurring theme among presidential aspirants in their 50s. South Chungcheong Governor An, nicknamed the last-standing confidante of late Roh, said in his declaration speech on Sunday that a young leader is required to open a new era for the country. “That would be the beginning of the new phase for the country,” he told his supporters.

Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo, who often stated this election would be between himself and Moon, painted Moon as “a man of the past” who was “not qualified to take charge of the country in the fourth industrial revolution.”

Electing heads of state in their 40s and 50s has been a norm among other advanced states. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada was 44 when he was elected to the position in 2015. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led the county for 12 years now, was 51 when she took office. Former U.S. President Barack Obama was 47 while former Prime Minister David Cameron was 44 when they took charge.

Presidential aspirants in their 50s are aiming to reduce Moon and Ban’s popularity by taking issue with what some observers see as their limited capability to expand their support base. For Moon, it has been pointed out that he will hit a hurdle in expanding his appeal to conservatives, many of whom view his stance on national security and North Korea with suspicion.

Seongnam Mayor Lee tried to play that card by touting the fact that he received a majority of votes in a part of Seongnam in the mayoral election that had previously been a traditional stronghold for conservatives, making the point that he would be “the only candidate who could achieve the change of power” as the opposition bloc candidate.

But recent polls show young presidential hopefuls are still lagging far behind Moon and Ban. In the latest poll by R&Research on this year’s presidential election, Seongnam Mayor Lee ranked a distant third with 9.3 percent of support while Moon led with 34.6 percent and Ban came in second with 18 percent.

BY CHA SE-HYEON, KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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