Ahn's growing popularity prompts rumors of PPP coalition
Minor opposition People's Party presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo has seen a boost in recent approval ratings, prompting speculation that a coalition with the main opposition People Power Party (PP), which has struggled in recent polls, could once again be on the cards.
With just over two months left until the March 9 presidential election, eyes are on Ahn and whether the physician-turned-politician will choose to form a coalition with another candidate, which could mark a pivotal turn in what has been a neck-and-neck race between Lee Jae-myung, presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), and the PPP's Yoon Suk-yeol.
Yoon's ratings suffered in the most recent polls after allegations of his wife using false credentials and disunity within his election campaign, while Ahn has seen a significant gain. The sudden shift has led to speculation that the PPP may try to more actively court the People's Party politician, who appears to be chipping away at Yoon's centralist support base.
Addressing such speculation, Ahn in a press conference at the National Assembly Sunday said he is "not considering" a merger with any other candidate.
He said, "I plan to be the one elected to lead a change in administration and become the older brother to take the new era one step further."
Pointing to people's disappointment in both Lee and Yoon, he said he plans to spend the month appealing to the public that he is the "most qualified person in terms of morality and ability."
However, Ahn, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2012 and 2017 and for Seoul mayor in 2018 and this year, has previously stepped down from multiple races to back another candidate.
Most surveys over the past several days, including those run by the major broadcasters, showed Lee a few percentage points in the lead outside the margin of error over Yoon, who previously held a slight advantage over Lee in opinion polls, with increased support for Ahn, who has generally remained in a distant third.
In a survey released by Hankook Research Saturday, Lee received 34.3 percent support, Yoon 28.7 percent, Ahn 9 percent and the Justice Party's candidate Sim Sang-jeung 4.5 percent. The poll was conducted on 1,005 voters nationwide over Wednesday and Thursday and was within a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
Of respondents favoring an opposition candidate, 64.8 percent were in favor of a merger between Yoon and Ahn.
A Research and Research opinion poll Friday put Lee in the lead at 35.5 percent, followed by Yoon at 30.9 percent, Ahn at 10.3 percent and Sim at 4.1 percent. The survey was conducted from Dec. 27 to 29 on 1,013 adults 18 and over nationwide.
It marked the first time Ahn has reached a two-digit approval rating since he announced his candidacy. Ahn received the highest support from the crucial demographic of voters in their 20s, with 21.4 percent, compared to 18.3 percent for Lee and 16.6 percent for Yoon.
Ahn, chairman of the People's Party and a former medical doctor and software entrepreneur, declared his third presidential bid in November.
A previous merger negotiation between the PPP and Ahn's People's Party ended in failure in August.
Ahn especially appeals to the younger demographic, as Yoon and Lee have grappled to gain the support of people in their 20s.
Ahn told JTBC in an interview Saturday that he plans to create a "troika system," cementing a three-way race between Lee, Yoon and himself by the Lunar New Year holiday in early February.
He credited his recent rise in approval ratings to a "fair evaluation" by the public of his morality and experience garnered over the past 10 years of his political career.
Ahn differentiated himself from Yoon, saying that while they both wanted a change in government, the PPP candidate's "end goal" was that change, while he said he wanted to "create a better Republic of Korea."
The PPP, which had been dismissive of a merger and the viability of Ahn's candidacy, has indicated more openness toward consolidating forces with the People's Party leader.
Kim Chong-in, general chairman of the PPP election campaign committee, said on Friday on the possibility of a merger with Ahn, "It remains to be seen," adding that joining forces "would be of some help." Despite being a previous critic of Ahn, Kim's remarks left open the possibility of a merger.
The PPP has suffered from internal feuds which led to the party's chairman, Lee Jun-seok, stepping down as standing co-chair of Yoon's election campaign committee last month. Kim in turn stepped up his leadership over the campaign, trying to rein in Yoon's brash remarks and also the public back-and-forth jabs between Lee and Yoon's close aides.
In response to such controversies, Kim told reporters Sunday that he is managing Yoon's campaign strategy more directly, "including all his messages and speeches."
Yoon said Saturday, "It is not right in terms of political morality to refer to a merger when a candidate is actively campaigning," appearing to be mindful that the rumors could offend Ahn.
PPP chief Lee told MBN Sunday, "Even without a merger, Yoon can regain his supporters if he uses accurate tactics" to reach out across generations. This includes reaching out to the younger generation in their 20s and 30s and in turn appealing to their parents' generation in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
Lee said, "Ahn's support base in their 20s and 30s seems to be temporarily expanding because this demographic is dissatisfied with Yoon."
He went onto question, "If there is a merger, will the approval rating that went to Ahn come to our candidate?" Lee added that the focus should rather be on regaining young voters' support rather than a merger.
While the PPP so far maintains the official position that there is no need for a merger, as is the case with the People's Party, such positions can be overturned at the last minute as seen in previous races, depending on the direction of opinion polls and other factors.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]