SEOUL (Reuters) - The latest runner in South Korea’s presidential race, software millionaire Ahn Cheol-soo, received a boost from the first poll taken after he declared his candidacy but is going to have to row back on his attacks on big business if he wins power.
Ahn, 50, once called financial crime was worse than homicide, referring to the heads of the conglomerates, or chaebol, who have been convicted and then pardoned over corporate scandals, as the head of Samsung Group, the largest group, and car giant Hyundai Motor Co have been.
Now established as the leading candidate in the December election by at least one pollster, Ahn is likely to have to shift his tone as he counts down the 89 days to a poll that pits him against the daughter of the country’s dead ex-dictator and a former political prisoner.
“Neither Ahn nor anyone else individually, even as president, can single-handedly change the chaebol. At most, Ahn should integrate the chaebols’ interests to help in closing the gap between the haves and have-nots,” said Jasper Kim a professor at Ewha Womans University’s graduate school in Seoul.
All three candidates for the December 19 polls - Ahn, the conservatives’ Park Geun-hye and the left’s Moon Jae-in - have pledged to share wealth and opportunities more evenly, reflecting the main concern of voters in opinion polls.
That means finding a way of reining in the chaebol whose annual revenues are equivalent to the gross domestic product of the world’s 13th largest economy.
Ahn, as a self-made man whose career has spanned medicine, technology and a top university post, is seen as the man who represents the aspirations of most ordinary Koreans, as opposed to those of the wealthy chaebol families who inherited their money and are trying to ensure it passes to the next generation.
“For many, he (Ahn) encapsulates the Korean dream - a socio-economic and political messiah,” said Ewha’s Kim.
Overnight Ahn rose to an almost six percentage point lead in a race against conservative candidate Park, the daughter of military dictator Park Chung-hee who ruled South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979.
His message on the chaebol has rattled big business But he appears to have already started to moderate his tone.
“He’s talked about growth momentum, so it’s an indication that he won’t be trying to destroy the chaebol,” said Yu Chang-seon, an independent political commentator.
Roh Moo-hyun, a left wing president from 2003-2008, also pledged to take on the “chaebol” but largely failed to deliver and under his rule the gap between rich and poor, traditionally quite narrow in South Korea, grew dramatically.
After kicking off his campaign in Seoul on Wednesday with an emotional speech, Ahn did what all South Korean presidential aspirants have to do and spent Thursday visiting the country’s National Cemetery, where many former presidents and patriots are buried, including the dead of the 1950-53 Korean War that saw the peninsula divided.
In doing so, he left a major question of his campaign unanswered: would he join with Moon, picked last weekend by the opposition Democrat United Party as its presidential candidate.
Moon, 59, who was jailed under South Korea’s military dictatorship and later served in the special forces before working as a human rights lawyer and aide to Roh, came out fighting on Thursday and appeared to discount stepping aside.
“I‘m confident I can beat Park Geun-hye, Ahn Cheol-soo, both of them. I wouldn’t have run in the first place if I wasn’t confident about winning,” Moon told DUP supporters at a rally.
The prospect of a three-way fight would almost certainly hand the presidency to the 60-year old Park whose solid ratings among older voters and those who yearn for the certainties of her father’s rule mean she has the strongest base.
“It is the New Frontier Party’s hope that they stop the discussion about a united candidate and keep this a three-way race,” Hwang Woo-yea, the head of Park’s conservative party was quoted as saying on Thursday by Yonhap news agency.
(The story corrects date of poll to December 19 in paragraph 5)
(Additional reporting by Choonsik Yoo; Editing by David Chance and Jonathan Thatcher)
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