Will conservative vote for Ahn Cheol-soo?

People’s Party Chairman Rep. Park Jie-won holds a party meeting at the National Assembly, Monday. The Democratic Party of Korea called People’s Party presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo “Park’s avatar,” saying Park is behind Ahn’s recent appeal to conservative voters. / Yonhap

By Kim Hyo-jin

Ahn Cheol-soo

Ahn Cheol-soo has emerged as the biggest challenger to Moon Jae-in in the presidential race, overtaking Moon in some opinion polls, largely because many conservative voters have opted to support Ahn, a center-left politician, instead of conservative candidates from scandal-hit parties.

Analysts, however, say it is still early to say whether the conservatives’ support for Ahn will continue until election day. Most of all, conservatives have no loyalty for Ahn, they say.

“Conservatives have yet to settle on Ahn,” said Bae Jong-chan, the chief director of pollster Research and Research. “As much as they had been inflexible in shifting their support, their current behavior can be very flexible.”

Recent polls have shown the race tightening as Moon of the liberal Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) faltered and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’ Party surged.

A Korea research poll showed Sunday that support for Ahn jumped to 36.8 percent, up 28.4 percentage points from the previous month, beating Moon at 32.7 percent.

Ahn led Moon with 38 to 22.8 percent in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, the conservative parties’ home turf. Plus, Moon trailed him in the respondents group aged 50 and older, categorized as traditional conservatives. Ahn garnered 43.8 percent of the support from those aged 50-59, viewed as casting their votes in the upcoming poll, while Moon gained 25.2 percent.

A Research Plus poll also found that 51.9 percent of those who voted for former President Park Geun-hye in the last presidential election supported Ahn.

“Conservatives have started moving strategically,” said Kim Hyung-joon, a professor of political science at Myongji University. “But it does not necessarily mean that they will continue supporting Ahn.”

The professor noted that despite Ahn’s growing popularity, polls still find that people view Moon as having a higher chance of winning the election, which indicates the stability of their support bases.

In a Korean Society Opinion Institute (KSOI) poll, 56.5 percent of the repondents chose Moon as the potential winner while 31.6 percent chose Ahn. A Hankook Research poll showed that 74.5 percent of Moon supporters anticipated his victory while 42.2 percent of Ahn supporters were sure of Ahn’s.

“Voters can turn back to the candidates from conservative parties if security issues take the stage, which is quite likely as the U.S. and China are falling short of a good outcome over the North Korea issue,” Kim said.

“It could push shy conservative voters, who reluctantly show their preference in opinion polls, to make a collective move in the actual ballot.”

Bae doubted if Ahn’s surging popularity would directly lead to a positive result in the poll.

“After the presidential corruption scandal, the conservative voters’ spirit has been crushed. They show little willingness to vote on the day in various opinion polls. So it’s too soon to anticipate anything yet,” he said.

Analysts said that it will be critical for Ahn to disperse public doubts of his party’s potential to manage state affairs if it takes power.

The People’s Party has been given little confidence by the public as it holds only 40 seats of the 300-seat Assembly. In a Research Plus poll, Sunday, 38.1 percent of the respondents viewed Moon as the most capable candidate in managing stable state affairs while 32.6 percent opted for Ahn.

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