Presidential elections in South Korea are scheduled for December 2017, but the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye on Dec 9, 2016, with 234 to 56 votes (with two abstentions and seven invalid), potentially brings the election forward if the Constitutional Court supports the impeachment. The Court has 180 days to decide, and six justices must support the impeachment or it fails. If the Court supports impeachment, then presidential elections must be held within 60 days. Not surprisingly, presidential aspirants are lining up to declare their candidacies in preparation for a shortened primary and election campaign. Perhaps curiously, the prevailing favorites have largely refrained from formal announcements and have only hinted at running.
The contenders who have announced so far are:
- Gyeonggi Gov Nam Kyung-pil, Barun Party, which is the splinter from the Saenuri party comprising the non-Park faction. Nam was a five-term who has criticized the Park government for its authoritarian-leanings. The governor is also one of the first party heavyweights to quit the Saenuri party in November, 2016, and join the opposition to demand President Park’s impeachment.
- Yoo Seong-min, Barun Party, is the former Saenuri floor-leader of the non-Park faction who lost that position following a clash with President Park and subsequently also lost the party’s nomination at general elections.[i] Yoo was folded back into the party after he won his seat as an independent. He is one of the 12 members of the crisis management council that included former chair of the Saenuri Party, Representative Kim Moo-sung, to bring party members into supporting President Park’s impeachment.
- former Prime Minister Chung Woon-chan, who served between 2009-2010 as President Lee Myung-bak’s PM from the Grand National Party.
- Rhee In-je, a senior Saenuri party leader who was a member of the Supreme Council, and who has declared his candidacy three other times since 1997.
- South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung, Minjoo Party, who at 52 represents one of the new generation of leaders from the liberal camp seeking higher political office to run the country.
- Seongnam city Mayor Lee Jae-myung, Minjoo Party, a progressive who has revived the city’s economy and put in place an extensive welfare program in the city. Lee was among the few politicians who took part in the large protest rallies in Seoul against President Park beginning in October.
- Seoul city Mayor Park Won-soon, a former human rights lawyer and social activist, whose 2011 and 2014 election successes vaulted him into the spotlight as a potential presidential candidate for the liberal camp, in the footsteps of precedents of former Seoul mayors such as former President Lee Myung-bak. The former independent formally ran under the New Politics Alliance for Demo (NPAD) umbrella in 2014, and is expected to contest the Minjoo party primary.
- Sim Sang-jeung, leader of the Justice Party, a minority party with six seats in the legislature.
- Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, 2012 presidential contender, co-founder of the People’s party and former chair. In 2014, Ahn co-founded the NPAD with the Minjoo Party, but then split from the alliance in spectacular fashion in December 2015 to form the People’s Party. Ahn dropped out of the presidential race in favour of Moon Jae-in in 2012 so as not to split the vote for the liberal camp; given the many charged conflicts between the two in the last few years, it will be interesting to see if Ahn – who is polling at fourth place in public opinion surveys – will wrestle for the liberal mantle till the end.
The current two front-runners have not been as forward in their candidacies, to avoid a potential backlash if they are seen as excessive politically ambitious. Still, both have signalled interests in the presidential race:
- Representative Moon Jae-in, former chair of the NPAD, yielded the chair to election strategist Kim Jong-in to revitalize the Minjoo Party following the split in the NPAD. But for a short stint when Ban returned to Korea, Moon has remained the steadfast frontrunner at the polls. However, Moon’s candidacy may come under serious attack by the conservatives, over allegations that Moon, while serving as chief-of-staff for President Roh Moon-hyun, made compromises with North Korea.
- Former UN Secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has signaled his presidential ambitions with visits across the country, including the site of the Sewol ferry tragedy in 2014. Ban has criticized President Park for betraying the people, while also emphasizing his political poise, savvy, and experience. It will be interesting to see under which party banner Ban chooses to fly: while he is pursued by the conservative Saenuri party, the former UN Sec-General was in attendance at the launch of the splinter Barun party. Meanwhile,the liberal People’s Party has also called for an umbrella party to house non-mainstream politicians. Ban’s candidacy is not without burdens: his brother and nephew were recently charged in a bribery scheme; that development may cast a shadow on Ban’s run.