The two candidates representing the ruling party and the liberal opposition bloc are locked in a dead heat as recent opinion polls showed the race for Seoul mayor to be too tight to call.
Some polls found that judge-turned-politician Na Kyung-won of the Grand National Party had already bridged the gap in voter support with lawyer and civic activist Park Won-soon, an opposition-backed independent candidate.
Her rise has apparently put on edge the opposition rival hailed by voters disenchanted with established politicians. Na was previously trailing Park by more than 10 percentage points.
In the neck-and-neck race, each side is mobilizing all possible resources to secure a victory in the Oct. 26 by-election whose outcome is expected to be a gauge of public sentiment ahead of general and presidential elections next year.
According to an opinion poll of 2,500 eligible voters in Seoul, conducted last week by local daily Naeil Shinmun and pollster Research View, Park garnered 47 percent, only 2.6 percentage points ahead of Na. The margin of error was plus or minus 1.96 percentage points.
In another poll of 1,000 Seoul voters, conducted last week by Seoul Shinmun and pollster Embrain, Na gained 47.6 percent of support, leading Park by 3.1 percentage points. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Experts say that what the opposition alliance calls “mudslinging” against Park eroded voter confidence in the civic activist, pointing out that Park failed to deftly respond to the string of allegations against him.
Citizens walk by posters of candidates for the Oct. 26 by-elections in Seoul on Sunday. (Ahn Hoon/ The Korea Herald)
The GNP campaign machine has made the allegations regarding his military service, academic records and wealth, calling on Park to “squarely face the vetting process for voters’ right to know.” Park’s side called on the GNP to stop negative campaigning, calling it a “typical example of old-fashioned politics.”
“His response to the smear campaign was not deft enough to stave off another set of allegations. To better deal with such allegations, he should have had good strategies and information. Support from the Democratic Party was insufficient in terms of that,” Shin Yul, politics professor at Myongji University, told The Korea Herald.
“Another factor was that Park did not perform well in the recent televised debates, thus failing to create a good image and frustrating voters. Also he did not clearly specify how to realize his election pledges, thus making them look empty.”
Chung Dae-hwa, politics professor at Sangji University, said that the newly emerging Park was suffering from the vetting process while the established politician Na has already gone through it.
“It is a difference between one with election experience and the other without it. So the areas for Park that have not been vetted yet have been highlighted as negative campaigning intensifies to tarnish his ‘clean’ image,” he said.
Chung, however, noted that a series of allegations including the controversial purchase of President Lee Myung-bak’s retirement home lot and a set of corruption cases involving his associates could foment public anger against the ruling bloc and influence the result.
As Na is emerging as a formidable candidate now with the full backing of her party -- particularly with former GNP chairwoman and strong presidential hopeful Park Geun-hye -- attention is being drawn to whether entrepreneur-turned-professor Ahn Chul-soo will come out on the campaign trail to boost support for the opposition candidate.
Ahn has so far indirectly supported the civic activist.
“I wish the GNP could think of how the smear campaign will be perceived by Seoul citizens,” he recently told a throng of reporters.
Though Ahn has yet to express his intention to enter politics, local media mention him as a potential heavyweight in the next presidential race, citing his high popularity among those calling for change in politics. Critics argue the political establishment remains mired in partisan disputes at the expense of the public.
Some experts say that Ahn could even challenge Park, the ruling party’s frontrunner.
Observers said that the last remaining televised debate Thursday -- organized by Seoul’s election watchdog -- will be a crucial chance to turn the tide.
In efforts to woo tech-savvy young voters, the two candidates have utilized online social networking services such as Twitter. Experts say that such online tools could help boost voter participation. They believe higher turnout will favor Park as he is thought to be more popular among progressive young voters.
Meanwhile, as allegations against Park have been escalating, his campaign filed a complaint against Na’s spokesperson for defamation. He alleged that Park deceived the public by saying that he once served as a guest researcher at Harvard Law School.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)