Ban keeps trying to fill up his ‘big tent’

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Ban keeps trying to fill up his ‘big tent’

With his approval rating showing little sign of bouncing back, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon continued on Sunday a series of meetings with political heavyweights openly opposed to a potential candidacy of Moon Jae-in, the presidential frontrunner of the opposition Democratic Party (DP).

The former UN chief met with veteran lawmaker Park Jie-won of the People’s Party on Sunday in what was seen as an attempt to court political talent into his camp to forge an alliance to challenge Moon. Ban’s meeting with Park was the fifth such meeting the 72-year-old political aspirant has hosted with political heavyweights outside of the Moon camp over the past two weeks.

The purpose of hosting such meetings is clear: filling the “Big Tent” with figures outside the pro-Moon and pro-Park Geun-hye factions of the political establishment.

But the career diplomat’s popularity as a presidential contender lags behind Moon’s with a double-digit gap in most polls, weakening Ban’s appeal among savvy political players still mulling over which side to join ahead of an election that could come as soon as this spring.

In a poll by Embrain conducted on Monday and Tuesday of last week, Ban ranked second with 16 percent of support, a whopping 15.2 percent points behind Moon’s 31.2 percent.

“The most important source of momentum to attract political talent to his camp (under the big tent) is his approval rating,” Lee Jung-hee, a professor of political science at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, told the Korea JoongAng Daily on Monday.

“People will come to his side after seeing his approval rating go higher,” said Lee.

“Upon his return [to Korea from the U.S.], Ban has failed to present voters with a new vision for the country. Ban’s performance so far has fallen short of prior expectations.”

In virtual two-way races pitting opposition contenders such as Moon Jae-in, South Chungcheong Governor An Hee-jung and Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung against Seoul’s former top diplomat, Ban’s approval rating trailed each of the three.

In a virtual two-way race with Moon, Ban garnered 32.3 percent with Moon leading far ahead with 55.6. With governor An, Ban was behind with 31.3 to An’s 52.5 percent. Pitted against Mayor Lee, it was 51.6 to 33.5.

Bashing Ban’s attempt to fill up his “big tent,” DP Chairwoman Choo Mi-ae said Monday most people Ban had been trying to recruit had their roots in the ruling party, calling Ban’s group in-the-making the “very political entity that should be gotten rid of.”

With the growing possibility that the presidential election will be held much earlier than originally scheduled in December - pending a Constitutional Court ruling on an impeachment motion against President Park - maneuvering is underway by those outside Moon’s camp in the opposition. The presidential election must be held within 60 days if the court removes the president. The court is expected to deliver its verdict by March 13.

If the president is not removed, the election will be held as normally scheduled.

One scenario being floated around is a defection by former DP interim chief Kim Chong-in to form his own camp in a bid for the office. Kim, a well-known adversary of Moon, has been in touch with Ban since his homecoming on Jan. 12 for a possible political alliance. But as Ban’s approval rating slipped, Kim is reportedly considering making a bid himself to defeat Moon.

“If Kim leaves the DP in February, it means he is intent on running in the race himself,” one close associate of Kim was quoted as saying by the JoongAng Ilbo.

Another member of Kim’s inner circle told the JoongAng that Ban’s low approval rating has “reached the point of no return” and that the middle-to-right political forces would begin considering Kim as a challenger to Moon.

If Ban gives up his own “big tent” outside the political parties and decide to join an existing party, he will find himself in a bitter party primary to win the nomination.

Should Ban join the People’s Party, he will face off against software mogul-turned-politician Ahn Cheol-soo. In the case of the Bareun Party, launched earlier this month by Saenuri defectors, he will compete with four-term lawmaker Yoo Seong-min.

Another possible scenario is, as Ahn Cheol-soo predicted, Ban will give up his presidential bid after tasting the bitterness of hardball politics - as Ahn did himself in 2012.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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