|Ahn Cheol-soo, left, and Lee Jun-seok / Korea Times photo|
By Kang Seung-woo
Even though fielding a unified candidate for the opposition bloc is regarded as a winning formula in the March 9 presidential election, it remains to be seen whether it can really happen due to animosity between Lee Jun-seok, the chairman of the main opposition People Power Party, and Ahn Cheol-soo, an emerging candidate of the minor opposition People's Party.
While PPP candidate Yoon Suk-yeol was caught up recently in internal divisions within the party, Ahn saw his approval ratings reach double digits in many public surveys, some of which found that he was a better fit as a unified opposition candidate than Yoon, as the former software tycoon was projected to have the best chances at defeating Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea.
However, Lee, who has long been critical of Ahn, was dismissive of the presidential candidate once again, dismissing the recent surge in Ahn's approval rating.
"Ahn is excessively fired up about a temporary upward trend in his approval, so he is asserting himself as a competitive unified candidate, citing public opinions online … but as far as I know, online public sentiment is not true to his assertion," Lee said in a radio interview, Wednesday.
Lee's remarks come days after Ahn said on Sunday that the majority's public sentiment toward a unified candidacy is that he should be the one to represent the opposition bloc in the presidential election.
Lee further said that forming a coalition between Yoon and Ahn was not critical for the election, citing the PPP candidate's recovering approval.
"A unified candidacy is an election strategy between a runner-up and a third-place candidate in approval ratings to defeat a leading candidate, but after a reorganization of the party's election committee, Yoon has bounced back to lead a majority of polls. "Under the circumstances, how can we think about a unified candidate?" Lee said.
"Even if we are in an unfavorable position down the road after making huge blunders, I think combining our campaigns will not help."
Lee appeared in a JTBC pilot program incognito recently and criticized Ahn, which drew a strong backlash from the People's Party after his identity was revealed. In the end, the cable channel decided against airing the TV program.
"It does not make sense why Ahn and his party protested the TV program, even with me openly criticizing him. It is questionable how much support the party will gain with such political sensibilities," he said.
"I will not respond separately to those who lost their sense of humor."
In response, Ahn said, also on Wednesday, that the PPP leader's repeated references to him are a reflection of the main opposition party's wariness of his emergence.
"If there is nothing to pay attention to, people do not mention it, but if it presents a threat, they do," Ahn said in another radio interview. "In that sense, Lee's references mean Ahn is menacing to Yoon."
Ahn also said his rising popularity was not because of Yoon's decline in approval ratings.
"Taking a closer look at public polls, when Yoon's approval increases a little bit, mine rises more," he added.
Ahn also renewed his claim that he would be a better unified opposition presidential candidate than Yoon, saying that many surveys show he is favored to defeat Lee by a large margin, but Yoon and Lee are in a neck-and-neck race.
According to a Kantar Korea poll commissioned by the Chosun Ilbo that interviewed 1,010 adults last Saturday and Sunday, in the hypothetical scenario of Yoon and Ahn merging candidacies and Yoon emerging as the unified candidate, Yoon had 39.3 percent support over Lee's 32.2 percent, but Ahn as the unified candidate had 47.9 percent support against Lee's 26.6 percent.
Another survey by Embrain Public for the Joongang Ilbo also found that as a unified candidate, Yoon beat Lee 45.3 percent to 37.2 percent, while Ahn beat Lee 51 percent to 31.3 percent. The poll surveyed 1,006 adults during the same period.
Ahn, who has yielded his candidacy in several past elections, including the 2012 presidential race, has refused to do so this time, but the former two-term lawmaker said he was open to a coalition that will field him as a unified candidate.
"I have never thought about an alliance with the PPP, but if I could become the unified candidate, I would accept it," Ahn said.