Lee, Yoon in neck-and-neck presidential race

Lee Jae-myung, center, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, speaks during a press conference at its headquarters in Seoul, Tuesday, about his election pledges to create jobs. Yonhap

20-something males, unified candidacy among factors determining upcoming election

By Kang Seung-woo

With 50 days left before the March 9 presidential election, the race for the top job in government is still too close to call, as shown in polls that show mixed results.

Some surveys found Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), is ahead of his main opposition rival Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party (PPP), but others show opposite results.

Lee has seen his approval ratings remain entrenched in the low 30 percent range, while Yoon's approval has widely fluctuated in accordance with issues linked to his family and election committee as well as himself.

According to a Kantar Korea poll commissioned by the Chosun Ilbo that interviewed 1,010 adults from Saturday and Sunday, Yoon and Lee are competing within the margin of error. The rate for Yoon is 32.8 percent, while Lee's is 31.7 percent. The margin of error of the poll is plus and minus 3.1 percentage points with a 95-percent confidence level.

Another survey by Embrain Public for the Joongang Ilbo also found Yoon ahead of Lee ― 35.9 percent to 33.4 percent. The poll was conducted on 1,006 adults during the same period.

However, an Embrain Public survey for News1, conducted on 1,000 adults from Sunday to Monday, showed Lee took a lead over Yoon by 1.2 percentage points ― 35.6 percent to 34.4 percent.

The close results are seen as the result of Yoon taking advantage of a series of developments that are favorable to him, including the resolution of a feud inside the PPP campaign committee and the abrupt death of an activist who raised corruption allegations against Lee. In the previous week, Lee was ahead of Yoon.

With the presidential race expected to be hard-fought down to the wire, political watchers say there are several factors that will decide who will emerge as the winner.

The focal point in the lead-up to the election is for whom voters in their 20s and 30s will cast their ballots as they are emerging as a crucial voting bloc that may well decide the election result.

Yoon recently rekindled the sensitive issue of gender conflict after posting a simple message on his Facebook page that read, "The abolishment of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family," which eventually helped his approval ratings bounce back ― particularly among 20-something male voters. Lee, meanwhile, tried to appeal to the hearts and minds of young female voters in an interview with the YouTube channel ".face," which deals with women's rights and feminism, while he asserted that feminism is an attempt to make this world better during his meeting with young people.

In last year's Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections, the PPP failed to gain enough support from young female voters and the party chairman, Lee Jun-seok, is seeking to earn more support from young men who are critical of feminism, so young female voters are anticipated to be supportive of the DPK candidate.

Urban voters

Seoul has served as a barometer of public sentiment in past elections, so both candidates are working hard to woo voters in the capital.

Lee is trying to court Seoul residents who have turned away from the ruling party due to the Moon Jae-in administration's failed real estate policy. In a Jan. 7 YouTube video, Lee said there was no candidate who lost in Seoul but won the presidential election. To this end, Lee announced policies to provide regulatory legroom on reconstruction and redevelopment projects, which he believes will curb real estate prices.

Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, speaks during a press conference with young social workers at the Korea Association of Social Workers in Seoul, Tuesday. Yonhap

The PPP is also working hard to appeal to eligible voters in Seoul, who lent huge support for the party in the mayoral by-election, appealing through housing projects such as supplying 400,000 homes and 100,000 homes adjacent to subway stations for young residents, newlyweds and other people who have yet to own a home.

According to Hangil Research director and political analyst Hong Hyeong-sik, public opinion in Seoul will have the greatest impact on the election and urban voters will be the most important factors determining the election results.

TV debate

TV debates will be aired on three major broadcasters ― KBS, MBC and SBS ― on Jan. 27, and three more debates by the National Election Commission including other opposition candidates, such as Ahn Cheol-soo of the People's Party, are expected to play an important role in deciding the election.

Initially, Yoon, who often found himself in hot water over his gaffes, showed signs of avoiding a one-on-one debate. But the PPP candidate has shown he is open to holding debates since the start of the new year. Lee Yang-soo, Yoon's campaign spokesperson, said, "Yoon will focus on unveiling allegations surrounding Lee during the debates. In response, a DPK official said Lee will keep in mind the fact that voters placed more importance on candidates' attitudes toward the debate in previous presidential debates.

Unified candidacy

Fielding a unified candidate between Yoon and Ahn will also be an important factor, with the former software tycoon's approval ratings increasing in recent surveys. According to a Realmeter survey released Monday, Ahn was found to have continued his upward streak after adding 1.8 percentage points from the previous week to 12.9 percent.

Even some public polls show that when Ahn becomes an opposition candidate, he is projected to easily defeat Lee in the election.

In that sense, the ruling party is also wary of a possible merger, saying that it remains to be seen if a merger will happen, but there is a high possibility that it could heavily affect the election.

Kang Seung-woo ksw@koreatimes.co.kr

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