Narrowing the Field in the Ruling Camp <i>by Yang Sang-hoon</i>

      March 21, 2007 11:58

      With the ex-Gyeonggi provincial governor Sohn Hak-kyu's defection from the Grand National Party, the rough outline of competition for the presidential primaries in the ruling camp is in place. If it can produce a single candidate, it will highly likely be one of three aspirants -- Sohn, former Uri Party chairman Chung Dong-young, and former Seoul National University president Chung Un-chan. Sohn leads ruling-camp presidential hopefuls in approval ratings with some 8.2 percent. Chung Dong-young ranks first within Uri, and Chung Un-chan is tops the list of potential candidates the ruling camp would like to recruit.

      Many believe it will be difficult for ex-Uri chairman Kim Geun-tae to outrun his predecessor since both share the same power base in the party. Others like Kang Keum-sil and Han Myeong-sook don't seem to be getting much of a look at the moment since the two women have so far failed to outpace Chung Dong-young.

      It is difficult to predict how the three-way competition will proceed. But the competition will likely be affected by the idea that a candidate from the Chungcheong region will be chosen by the ruling camp.

      At the moment, the ruling party is in a difficult situation. Due to the people's antipathy to the Roh Moo-hyun administration, it lags far behind the GNP in terms of popular approval for both party and presidential contenders. This is not all. Right or wrong, regional sentiments are still powerful enough to influence the next presidential election. Apparently mindful of this, the ruling camp is exerting itself to establish a regional solidarity consisting of the Jeolla and Chungcheong regions. The ruling camp apparently believes that it can defeat the GNP if it builds up a confrontational structure between the Jeolla and Chungcheong solidarity and the GNP’s Gyeongsang support base.

      Since 1987, when direct presidential elections were introduced, no candidate who was defeated in the Chungcheong region has been elected president. In other words, candidates who won there won nationwide. At the moment, the GNP has no contenders from Chungcheong. If the ruling camp succeeds in producing a Chungcheong candidate, it might wish to establish a solidarity of Jeolla and Chungcheong. And in polls conducted right after Sohn defected from the GNP, only voters in Jeolla and Chungcheong to a large extent welcomed his decision.

      Among the three potential contenders within the ruling camp, only Chung Un-chan is from Chungcheong. He knows too well what this means. He has often pledged to "pay back my debts to Chungcheong." In the presidential elections, nobody from Chungcheong has so far become the candidate of either of two major parties. Thus any candidate hailing from there would likely have the support of their home region.

      But that is still only an idea. Chung Un-chan has a weak base as far as his supporters, organization and political experience are concerned. If he were to be a candidate, Chung would have to be nominated by ruling-camp lawmakers. Everyone with experience of campaigning in presidential elections knows how difficult it is artificially to produce a presidential candidate.

      With his background as president of the country's most prestigious university, Chung Un-chan would likely suffer persistent criticism that he has established artificial regional solidarity and promoted historical regression that way. The people of Chungcheong have never given any party or candidate a landslide victory. Many in the ruling camp still want to overcome region-based politics to win the presidential election. These weaknesses in the theory mean opportunity for Sohn and Chung Dong-young.

      Among the three, Sohn stands out with his achievements as a former governor. He can expect support from the Seoul metropolitan area. The obstacle facing him is the wall in the ruling camp. In polls, those who welcomed Sohn's defection from the GNP, in fact, did not want him to become the ruling camp’s presidential candidate. They were glad to see the GNP dealt a blow, but didn't welcome Sohn into their fold. That is the state of things so far.

      That leaves Chung Dong-young, who outshines the other two in terms of his control over his organization. He may be the most appealing to core supporters of the ruling camp's ideology, but he is still regarded as a close associate of Roh Moo-hyun. Due to his stagnating approval ratings, his once powerful power base within the party has also been eroded.

      The strengths and weaknesses of the three are intertwined. Simply put, the competition is between those who support a candidate from Chungcheong and those who oppose the idea.
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