Presidential candidates need help from two-time loser
The two main presidential candidates are wooing Ahn Cheol-soo, a two-time presidential loser, to get ahead in a neck-and-neck race.
The ruling Democratic Party (DP) is openly urging Ahn to give up his third presidential campaign and throw his support to its candidate, Lee Jae-myung.
"Because candidate registration takes place next week, [candidate consolidation] emerged as the hottest topic in the coming week," Woo Sang-ho, head of the DP's election headquarters, said Sunday in a press conference. "We are open-minded about various issues related to Ahn."
It was the first time that a campaign official of the ruling party officially mentioned the possibility of an electoral alliance with Ahn, which is what candidate consolidation would entail: Ahn dropping out and supporting Lee.
The main opposition PPP is openly trying to woo Ahn. "For us to win this nail-biter, we must unite with Ahn to field a single opposition candidate," said Won Hee-ryong, policy chief of the PPP's election campaign on Sunday. "Now is the time."
Korea will elect its new president on March 9, and official candidate registration takes place on Feb. 13 and 14.
In a Realmeter poll announced Monday, Yoon Suk-yeol of the opposition People Power Party (PPP) scored 43.4 percent, while Lee scored 38.1 percent.
Ahn scored 12.9 percent in the poll, indicating that it could be crucial for Yoon and Lee to get Ahn to drop out and support them. (More details are available at the National Election Survey Deliberation Commission's website.)
DP Chairman Song Young-gil also floated the idea of rewards for Ahn if he drops out of the race. In an interview with CBS on Monday, Song said Lee, if he wins, will create a coalition government by recruiting talented people regardless of their political affiliations.
"Whether Ahn helps us in the election or not, Lee's government will aggressively accept Ahn's science and technology agendas and implement them," Song said.
Asked if he was talking about a loose form of policy coalition with Ahn or a more specific plan of absorbing his candidacy, Song said the decision was up to Ahn.
Song argued that no matter who wins the next election, a kind of multi-party coalition government will be necessary to satisfy supporters of defeated candidates, since it is structurally impossible in Korea's election for one candidate to win with an overwhelming majority. Because the country does not have a runoff election system, Song said, multiple candidates compete and the winner is often back by less than the majority. There are four major candidates in this race.
Asked if Lee will offer Ahn or Kim Dong-yeon, another candidate, the job of prime minister if he wins the presidency, Song said it is a possibility. "I can't give you a specific name, but we must do so to unite different political factions," he said.
Lee had a surprise meeting Sunday night with Kim Chong-in, credited with victorious campaigns for the DP in the general election in 2016 and Park Geun-hye's presidential win in 2012. Kim has helped both of Korea's main parties -- on either side of the ideological divide.
According to DP sources, Lee and Kim, who stepped down last month from the conservative PPP's election campaign, had a meeting for about 80 minutes.
While Lee and Kim remained tightlipped about their discussion, a DP source said an electoral coalition and forming a nonpartisan cabinet could have been discussed. "Lee has been focusing on the idea of a coalition government recently, so the issue was likely to have been addressed at the meeting," he said.
Lee confirmed Monday that he wants to operate a kind of coalition government if he wins. "We need a nonpartisan government where talented people are recruited and policies are adopted regardless of political affiliations," Lee said in a meeting with 100 former ministers and vice ministers who have endorsed him.
Meanwhile, the PPP's Yoon said he is open to the idea of uniting with Ahn. "I don't think there is any need to rule the possibility out," Yoon said in an interview with the Hankook Ilbo conducted Friday and published Monday,
"If there will be a negotiation to merge our candidacies, it shouldn't be a public process," Yoon said. "It is a matter that must be decided swiftly between Ahn and me."
Yoon said Ahn and he share the same basic goal: preventing the DP from winning another presidency. "If we can work together, I am saying we should do so," Yoon said.
Kwon Young-se, chief of Yoon's campaign, also confirmed Monday that the party is open to a candidate consolidation with Ahn. Rep. Lee Yong-ho, another campaign leader, told YTN on Monday that an overwhelming majority of members of the PPP wants Yoon and Ahn to come together.
PPP Chairman Lee Jun-seok, however, opposes the idea, stressing that Yoon alone can win the election. "Normally, the second and third-place candidates unite to win against the frontrunner," Lee said. "When we start talking about opposition consolidation, we start speaking the language of a loser."
Ahn shot down the ruling and opposition parties' attempts to persuade him to give up. "I don't see any seriousness," Ahn said Monday when he was asked about the PPP's candidate consolidation plan.
Asked about the DP's call for merger, Ahn made clear that he was repelled by the situation. "They talk publicly about this, but they had never consulted us in advance," Ahn said. "So, I don't see any sincerity in their statements."
"I am running to win," he said, stressing that he will finish the race.
In the 2012 presidential election, Moon Jae-in, presidential candidate of the DP's predecessor Democratic United party, and Ahn spent weeks negotiating a candidate consolidation. One month before the election, Ahn endorsed Moon and dropped out, but Moon lost narrowly to Park Geun-hye.
In 2017, Ahn finished the race the third with 21.41 percent of the votes. Moon won with 41.08 percent and Hong Joon-pyo of the PPP's predecessor Liberty Korea Party scored 24.03 percent.