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Ahn’s rise shapes up two-way rivalry in S. Korea’s presidential race

South Korea’s presidential election on Monday appeared set to become a battle between two liberals as maverick politician Ahn Cheol-soo extended his remarkable challenge to front-runner Moon Jae-in for over a week.

In a Realmeter survey released on the day, Ahn of the centrist People’s Party doubled his approval rating to close his gap with Moon of the liberal Democratic Party to just over 5 percentage points.

Some other surveys placed Ahn ahead of Moon in a hypothetical matchup. Ahn also beat Moon for the first time in a five-way competition in a Korea Research Center survey published on Sunday.

Ahn’s rise began just over a week ago as Moon swept round after round of his party’s primary to knock out his then-biggest rival and fellow party member An Hee-jung from the election landscape. Many observers attributed Ahn’s poll boost to a bandwagon effect whereby An’s supporters shifted allegiance to the former software mogul.

The two candidates competed for liberal votes ahead of the 2012 presidential election before Ahn dropped out in support of Moon, who then lost to Park Geun-hye of the then-ruling conservative party.

Even before the presidential race began in earnest, many political pundits expected the May 9 election to be strongly in favor of the liberal camp following Park’s ouster over a corruption scandal. The conservative camp has fielded two main candidates — one from the former ruling party and another from a party that splintered off in the wake of Park’s impeachment — but their combined approval rating has hovered around 10 percent.

Ahn’s ascent gave rise to an intensified smear campaign. In an apparent attempt to keep Ahn’s challenge in check, Moon launched a series of offensives against the rival with claims the centrist candidate made an about-face on a crucial national security issue to win the conservative vote and extend the former administration’s “corrupt” rule.

Ahn initially opposed the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea amid strong protests from China and Russia. He later reversed his position to argue that with the deployment already under way, a president has the responsibility to uphold an agreement between states.

Moon balked at the claim, insisting the deployment decision should be left to the incoming administration. He also framed the centrist candidate’s presidential bid as collusion with the “deep-rooted evil forces” who are bent on stopping a government change.

Ahn countered by painting the former Democratic Party leader as a representative of the hegemonic forces within his party.

Apparently mindful of the potential damage of the negative campaigning, both sides on Monday mounted calls to compete with policy and vision.

“I ask (Moon) not to hide behind negative (campaigning) and explain his vision, policy and philosophy fair and square,” Ahn told reporters after delivering a lecture at a chamber of commerce.

Moon urged party officials to rally behind him to achieve governmental change.

“No political force in the world has taken power by saying someone can’t instead of laying out what they would do,” he said during a meeting of his election campaign. “The more (our rivals) do so, we must show the people what a true government change is through vision and policy and receive their support with a detailed vision for a completely new Republic of Korea.” (Yonhap)


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