4-way debate in the works, Yoon pushes for one-on-one with Lee
A Seoul court put the brakes on a one-on-one televised debate between the presidential candidates of the Democratic Party (DP) and main opposition People Power Party (PPP), opening up a chance for a four-way on-air discussion of major candidates over the Lunar New Year holiday.
However, the PPP on Thursday insisted on first holding a one-on-one debate between its presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol and the DP's Lee Jae-myung at the National Assembly, or another venue, before an expanded debate including the two other main contenders of minor parties.
The DP in turn said that it will accept the PPP's proposal to hold a Lee-Yoon debate, though it urged Yoon to also take part in the four-way debate.
The DP and PPP agreed last week to hold their first two-way televised debate before Lunar New Year next week, though they clashed over the exact date and time. The Lunar New Year holiday runs from Saturday to Wednesday.
The three terrestrial broadcasters KBS, MBC and SBS had been reviewing dates to hold the debate, with Sunday or Monday as the final dates in discussion between the DP and PPP.
However, the minor opposition People's Party candidate Ahn Cheol-soo and Justice Party's Sim Sang-jung fiercely opposed an exclusive debate between the DP and PPP nominees and separately filed injunctions with a local district court to block it.
The Seoul Western District Court ruled in favor of Ahn and Sim Wednesday, ordering the three major broadcasters against airing a debate between just the two major presidential candidates, saying it "infringes upon voters' right to knowledge" with just around 40 days until the election. It also found "no logical reason" to exclude Ahn and Sim from the debate.
After the decision, the three major broadcasters proposed that the four presidential candidates hold a TV debate at prime time from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. either on Jan. 31 or Feb. 3. Each party was asked to submit an opinion to the broadcasters on their preferred date.
Lee and Yoon appeared to agree to a four-way debate.
The DP, People's Party and Justice Party said that although both dates are fine, they prefer Jan. 31. The PPP initially appeared to agree to a four-way debate and said it will give its official response to the broadcasters after a review.
However, PPP Rep. Sung Il-jong, the party's TV debate negotiator, on Thursday proposed to carry on with a two-way debate with Lee without the broadcasters on Jan. 31.
"What are you afraid of?" said Sung, addressing the DP's candidate Lee. "Don't cowardly hide behind a four-way debate."
He added, "Confidently hold a two-way debate first, and then we can have a four-way debate whenever."
Sung argued that the two sides, the DP and PPP, have previously agreed on a two-way debate, and that it could be held in a venue hosted by the two parties, rather than the broadcasters. He claimed, "People want to see and hear more of a two-way discussion."
The People's Party called to follow through with a three-way debate excluding Yoon.
Rep. Park Ju-min, the DP's head of broadcast debate content, said on the PPP's sudden proposal, "It seems to be ignoring the court's ruling. I suspect that they are trying to use the two-way debate as a way to avoid a four-party debate."
Later Thursday, Park said in a statement that the DP will accept the PPP's proposal for a one-on-one debate with Lee, so long as Yoon also takes part in a four-way debate Monday.
Park said, "Candidate Lee Jae-myung accepts a two-way debate on Jan. 31," said Park. "Now, candidate Yoon just has to make clear whether he will take part in the four-way debate scheduled for Jan. 31."
While the PPP welcomed the DP's decision to accept a one-on-one, it called the four-way debate another issue for negotiation.
Thus, it was unclear as of Thursday evening whether a four-way televised debate would be scheduled in time for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.
Yoon has initially refused to take part in debates, questioning their necessity, but changed his tune earlier this month amid a revamping of his campaign strategy.
Televised presidential debates have been an important yardstick for voters to measure candidates' competence and have played significant roles in swaying public opinions in previous elections. Lunar New Year is an especially important time period as family members gather together and often discuss politics.
Ahn, who has been a distant third to Lee and Yoon in opinion polls, saw his approval ratings rise to the double digits since the beginning of the month, amid a period of internal feuding within the PPP. A merger between Ahn and Yoon could be another game-changer in the election, though both sides have denied the possibility of unifying forces for now.
In the latest opinion poll released Thursday conducted by Embrain Public, Kstat Research, Korea Research and Hankook Research, Lee came in the lead with 35 percent, followed closely by Yoon at 34 percent, Ahn at 10 percent and Sim at 2 percent. The poll of 1,000 adults nationwide was conducted Monday to Wednesday.
The two major parties have engaged in muckraking and attacking family members of candidates and revealing recordings of private phone calls, distracting from the actual platforms of their presidential nominees. In recent days, both the DP and PPP have been more focused on making clearer their campaign goals, and a TV debate would be an opportunity to convey to the public their political vision and major pledges.
The DP recently declared it will refrain from negative campaigning tactics. The PPP election campaign after a complete overhaul earlier this month likewise has been focused on putting forward Yoon's major policies in the past week.
There are also three rounds of presidential debates mandated by the public official election law. Candidates who are eligible will be invited to take part in the debates expected to take place on Feb. 21, Feb. 25 and March 2 by the National Election Broadcasting Debate Commission.
Such eligibility factors include whether a candidate comes from a political party that has five or more parliamentary seats and received at least a 5 percent average approval rating in public opinion polls 30 days ahead of the election.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]