South Korea: A Dark Horse’s Moonshot

[Originally published April 27, 2017.]

For Moon Jae-in, leader of the left-leaning Democratic Party, the stars seemed to have aligned. Five years after Moon narrowly lost the 2012 election to darling of the right Park Guen-hye, conservatives are now in disarray after Park’s ignominious and unprecedented removal from office in March for extorting big businesses. Moon was considered such a lock for the snap presidential election scheduled for May 9 that The Economist described his eventual victory as a “foregone conclusion.” 
But, true to the zeitgeist, a relative newcomer with populist appeal has surged. Ahn Cheol-soo is a former doctor and antivirus software mogul who rose to prominence earlier this decade as a social critic with a reputation for plain talk on issues such as economic inequality and social justice. Ahn’s centrist People’s Party only holds 40 of the parliament’s 300 seats (Moon’s Democratic Party has 119). Though born into privilege, Ahn rails against the corrupt, out-of-touch elite. Yet he has also emerged as a viable choice for those on the center-right looking for somewhere to turn in the wake of Park’s fall. 
The race is now considered a two-man contest (the other three candidates, polling in the single or very low double digits, have been written off). Predata’s digital campaign scores show that Ahn’s campaign is garnering more engagement online than Moon’s. Social media was a key component of Ahn’s rise seven years ago, and it remains a key component of his political identity today.

Despite his appeal to the digital community, Ahn still trails Moon in public opinion polls (as shown in the survey aggregates below).

There are few policy differences between the two candidates. And though a longstanding figure in South Korean politics, Moon is a persuasive counter to Ahn’s anti-establishment rhetoric. A former human rights lawyer and activist, Moon grew up poor. He has pledged to reduce inequality and break up South Korea’s chaebol, the massive politically-wired family conglomerates such as Samsung that seem to breed graft and bribery. Ahn’s outsider chances may remain a moonshot. ⏪