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[Newsmaker] Jongno race bellwether of presidential election

Rival presidential hopefuls to face off in April general election

Lee Nak-yon (left in a brown jacket) and Hwang Kyo-ahn (right with a black face mask) canvass voters in the Jongno District in central Seoul on Feb. 9. (Yonhap)
Lee Nak-yon (left in a brown jacket) and Hwang Kyo-ahn (right with a black face mask) canvass voters in the Jongno District in central Seoul on Feb. 9. (Yonhap)

Home to the presidential office and Seoul Government Complex comprising key government offices, the Jongno District in central Seoul has been a symbolic seat in the political landscape.

The election results there have proven to be a yardstick on public opinion and where rival parties stand in a nationwide battle for votes.

In the upcoming parliamentary elections in April, the district will once again serve as a key battlefield for liberals and conservatives, as Lee Nak-yon of the ruling Democratic Party and Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party will face off there.

From the way things look now, Lee, who was until January this year the nation’s prime minister, appears to have an upper hand.

The veteran politician with plenty of election experience is a clear favorite among potential presidential candidates, with a rating of around 30 percent, while Hwang is supported by 18 percent in the latest Realmeter survey released last week.

In a separate poll on their more immediate showdown in the Jongno constituency, conducted on a total of 500 residents there, Lee has an even bigger lead over Hwang, polling at 53-26. Hwang’s supporters say the poll was not an accurate gauge of public sentiment, as it was carried out days before Hwang officially announced his run on Friday.

For the duo, what’s at stake is not just a parliamentary seat.

A win will likely convince their respective party members, as well as voters across the country, that they are their best chance at the 2022 presidential polls. A defeat, on the contrary, will make them question that.

Announcing his run in Jongno, Hwang made clear his intention to frame the election as a judgement on President Moon Jae-in.

“I'm running to win against the Moon administration. This isn’t a one-on-one match; this is a fight between me and the Moon administration,” Hwang said.

Not once did Hwang refer to Lee Nak-yon during his announcement or afterward when addressing reporters’ questions, in a clear attempt to portray himself as the front runner checking up on President Moon

Hwang continued the rhetoric during his first street canvassing in Jongno on Sunday. 

Lee, who declared his run two weeks before, also sought out to meet as many Jongno voters as possible on Sunday. On Hwang’s attempt to make the race not just about Jongno, but the direction of the nation, he declined to speak further.

“On the extent of what I’ve said earlier, that I’d expect an election in good faith, I think I'll refrain from commenting on what he said about indicting the Moon administration. Let’s talk about policies,” Lee said. 

Both Lee and Hwang have served as prime minister -- Lee under the sitting President Moon and Hwang under former President Park Geun-hye. Between Park’s impeachment in December 2016 and the presidential election in May 2017, Hwang doubled as acting president.

Hwang was a prosecutor and lawyer before becoming prime minister, whereas Lee was a governor and four-term representative.

“Lee clearly got a head start in this race. What’s worse, Hwang seems incapable of testing his political capital for a last-minute turnaround. Unless the Moon administration or ruling party makes the faux pas of dragging down its approval ratings, Hwang stands little chance,” Rhee Jong-hoon, a political commentator, told The Korea Herald.

By Choi Si-young (