Race now under way to court Ban’s supporters

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Race now under way to court Ban’s supporters

With former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon now out of the presidential race, eyes are on what impact his dropout will have and who will benefit the most by absorbing Ban’s support, which largely comes from voters who are centrist or right of center.

So far, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who has been acting president since President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment on Dec. 9, appears to be benefitting the most.

In the latest poll by the JoongAng Ilbo, conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday on this year’s presidential election, 20.3 percent of Ban supporters said they would side with the interim head of state if Ban bowed out, followed by Rep. Yoo Seong-min of the Bareun Party, who garnered support from 12.8 percent of Ban advocates. Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party came in third with 10.4 percent.

On the back of growing approval, Hwang, a former prosecutor who built his career by rounding up people accused of being pro-North Korea, has emerged as one of the variables that could upend the election, which could take place as early as spring, pending the Constitutional Court’s ruling on whether to remove President Park from office.

Hwang’s approval rating, though he has not declared his bid yet, has been compared to Ban’s over the past three weeks. When Ban’s approval was high, Hwang’s was low and vice versa, demonstrating that Ban supporters were mulling over whom to side with between the two. In the JoongAng survey, Hwang rose to third, behind Moon and Ban, with 10.3 percent support.

Hwang’s recent activity as acting president has fueled speculation he is keeping his bid for president in mind. To the annoyance of the opposition and critics who say he should remain low-profile, Hwang has carried out official schedules that observers say are akin to those done by presidential hopefuls.

For instance, he visited a military boot camp to see draftees, long a common itinerary for presidential aspirants, and held a New Year’s press conference to lay out the government’s policies against criticisms he was acting like an elected president.

The ruling Saenuri Party, agonized over the lack of a competitive candidate amongst its own members to field in the race, is welcoming Hwang’s rise, hoping to have him on the party ticket.

“If Hwang’s political principles match with Saenuri’s, then I hope he comes to our party. I will not stand in the way,” said Saenuri interim chief In Myung-jin Thursday, while acknowledging he had a one-on-one meeting with Hwang during the Lunar New Year holiday. “I relayed my hope to him that should he decide to run, he should choose Saenuri,” said the lifelong pastor, who took the helm of the party in December as its emergency council chief to recover from the Choi scandal.

But not everyone is convinced Hwang will aim for the presidency, especially after witnessing the demise of Ban’s presidential bid just over a three-week period, battered by non-stop press reports questioning his qualifications and ethical lapses.

“It is conservative voters in the country who are flocking to Hwang’s side as they have found no alternative to represent the conservative bloc,” said Lee Jung-hee, professor of political science at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. “They are supporting him simply because they find him most likely to win. But once a rigorous vetting process begins, approval could evaporate in a moment just like Ban’s support slipped away.”

On his way to the National Assembly to listen to a speech by Democratic Party floor leader Woo Sang-ho on Thursday, Hwang only smiled when asked whether he would run for president. Kim Mi-hyeon, director at pollster R&Search, told the JoongAng Ilbo Thursday Hwang’s approval could rise to the mid-10s after those in their 60s come to his support base from Ban’s.

“In that case,” Kim said, “Hwang and Rep. Yoo Seong-min will face off each other in a bitter contest to represent the conservative bloc.”

Meanwhile, Ban continued to use harsh words against Korean politicians, lamenting their “shortsighted vision” for the country and likening them to “frogs trapped in a well.”

He added, “How much of an outside world would you be able to see inside the well? For me, I had a wide-clear view when looking at Korea outside of it (as UN chief).”

Ban said he will stay out of politics from now on.

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

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