What Next for Ahn Cheol Soo?

Angela Jung, May 10, 2017, 9:27 a.m.

Disappointment was palpable in the People's Party's headquarters on Tuesday evening when exit poll results showed its presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo shunted into third place with only about 21 percent of votes.

Only a month ago, Ahn was neck in neck with frontrunner Moon Jae-in of the Minjoo Party, but his attempt to claim the center ground from both camps ended up giving many the impression that he was neither flesh nor fish.

As a result he trailed Moon in the traditional liberal stronghold of South Jeolla Province and hard-right candidate Hong Joon-pyo in the conservative strongholds of the Gyeongsang provinces.

Yet Ahn fared well in the Seoul metropolitan region, where he came second after Moon, who may have led only because of tactical voting there. This has persuaded some pundits that Ahn's political career is not over.

Ahn gave up his National Assembly seat when he announced his presidential bid, but party officials say chances are slim that he will retire from politics. One close aide said, "He could distance himself from the party and the National Assembly for a while and return when the timing is right."

But others are less optimistic. One prominent People's Party official from South Jeolla Province said, "The declining support Ahn suffered was the direct result of the limitations he showed in the TV debates. I doubt he'll be given another chance."

The People's Party is in fact as firmly rooted in the southwest of the country, where Ahn and many of its lawmakers come from, as any incarnation of the liberal parties to date. Ahn's loss and waning local support puts the party's very existence in question, according to party insiders. Now the pressure is on to merge with or defect to the Minjoo Party, which has more persuasively captured regional and national support.

Some other party officials want to consolidate the centrist camp and merge with the splinter-conservative Bareun Party, which is made up of defectors from ex-President Park Geun-hye's camp.

One People's Party lawmaker said, "We've demonstrated our potential as a new alternative to the established liberal and conservative camps, so we may gain more support if we unite with Bareun." 

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