The Stage is Set: Presidential Election Viewer's Guide

Four storylines to watch in the race.

The Stage is Set: Presidential Election Viewer's Guide

Photo: Yun Seok-yeol (left) and Lee Jae-myung.  Credit: the Blue Roof.

With the presidential slate set with the Democratic nominee Lee Jae-myung 이재명 민주당 후보 and People Power Party nominee Yun Seok-yeol 윤석열 국민의힘 후보, here are four storylines to watch in the next days of the race.

  1. Which candidate can clean up his image faster?  The favorability ratings for both candidates are deeply underwater. In the NBS poll from the first week of November, the favorability-unfavorability split for Lee Jae-myung was 37%-60%; Yun Seok-yeol, 41%-56%. Lee is having difficulty shaking his association with the Daejang-dong real estate scandal 대장동 부동산 사건 (see previous coverage, “Daejang-dong Upends the Race”), while Yun continues to have a rough transition into politics by committing a series of gaffes that would have ended the careers of most politicians who were not being graded on as generous of a curve. (See previous coverage, “Yun and Anal Acupuncture”.) The investigation for the real estate scandal will continue for Lee, and the grace period will run out for Yun soon. Whichever candidate escapes this state faster by presenting a positive vision for the future will ultimately prevail.
  2. Which candidate can quell intraparty dissent faster?  With the primary behind them, both Lee and Yun need to pivot away from their core supporters and to the general public - but the pivot is not possible until the core is stabilized. Lee Jae-myung managed to placate the second-place Lee Nak-yeon 이낙연 quickly enough, constructing a campaign headquarters that included all five of his intraparty rivals. Yet challenges remain for Lee, including how to handle the legacy of Moon Jae-in 문재인. The outgoing liberal president remains highly popular among Democrats, but fatigue is setting in among moderates: in the Gallup Korea poll from the first week of November, 57% said they preferred a generic opposition candidate to win. Lee needs to navigate carefully to distinguish himself from Moon’s less popular policies such as those that are thought to be responsible for soaring real estate prices, while not offending Moon’s supporters. Meanwhile, Yun Seok-yeol is facing a mass defection from young conservatives, who overwhelmingly supported his intraparty rival Hong Jun-pyo 홍준표. The men in their 20s, who followed the incel pundit Lee Jun-seok 이준석 to the People Power Party, are not enthusiastic about Yun. (See previous coverage, “Incel Leader Becomes Conservative Leader.”) Unless Yun can get these young men on his side, he risks getting isolated into the seniors demographic.
  3. Which candidate will be more dogged by legal risk?  In his parting words, PPP’s second place Hong Jun-pyo declared this election was an “unprecedented presidential race to be led by the prosecutors’ corruption investigations.” Hong is correct, in a way: both candidates face significant legal risk, and the consequences of this risk may well end their campaign. Although Lee Jae-myung fought off the initial wave of Daejang-dong scandal allegations, a former Seongnam 성남 city official who worked under Lee is currently facing charges for bribery. It is entirely possible that new information may implicate Lee. Similarly, Yun Seok-yeol’s former subordinate in the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office 대검찰청 is being investigated for the prosecutors’ collusion with the conservative politicians to manufacture criminal charges against liberal journalists and politicians. The collusion scandal more directly implicates Yun, as the attempted attack was directed toward the journalists and politicians who took aim at Yun’s mother-in-law, who was imprisoned for defrauding the government. (See previous coverage, “Collusion Charge Implicates Yun.”) Yun’s wife is also facing allegations of an insider trading scheme, as well as fraudulently obtaining her doctorate with an obviously subpar and plagiarized dissertation.
  4. Which candidate will stop the leak to minor candidates?  With the unfavorability rating so high for both candidates, voters are likely to give minor candidates a more serious look. Both Lee Jae-myung and Yun Seok-yeol have significant minor candidates on their flanks: Sim Sang-jeong 심상정 of the Justice Party 정의당 on the left, and Ahn Cheol-su 안철수 of the People’s Party 국민의당 on the right. For the sake of their own political clout, the minor candidates will do all they can to attack the major candidates, hoping to siphon votes. The major candidates may attempt to prevent the leak by seeking to unify the field, but attempts to unify the candidacy are often protracted and messy.

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