When the popular independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo pulled out of South Korea’s presidential contest last month, he completely changed the odds in a race that might have marked a new phase in the country’s history. Now only two candidates are still in the running, representing the main conservative and progressive camps, which have been squabbling over power since the end of the dictatorship in the late 1980s. On the right is Park Geun-hye, 60, standing for the ruling New Frontier party, and on the centre-left Moon Jae-in of the opposition Democratic United party.
The end of the bargaining process to designate a single opposition candidate – which has so far monopolised the electorate’s attention – and the official campaign’s launch should prompt more lively debate before the 19 December poll.
But Ahn’s bid has not been wholly wasted,coalescing public condemnation of traditional political practices and forcing both right and left to move closer to the centre on the two key sources of concern for public opinion: social justice and a shift in policy towards North Korea.
The decision to pull out of the race was prompted by memories of the 1987 election, when two opposition candidates – Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam – both fought it outto the bitter end, facilitating the election of Roh Tae-woo, a retired general close to the dictatorship, which had finally yielded to popular unrest.
Having failed to reach agreement with Moon on a single candidate, Ahn decided to throw in the towel rather than hand the presidency to Park on a plate. She would have been sure of victory in a contest with a divided centre-left.