SOUTH KOREA
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Park Geun-hye

Park Geun-hye's campaign for president self-destructing

Daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee seemed to have presidential election in a bag, until a civil war broke out between factions in her party

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 October, 2012, 3:19am

Less than two months ago, Park Geun-hye seemed a shoo-in to become South Korea's first woman president, but that was before her campaign switched focus from getting her into power to ripping itself apart.

Corruption allegations against close aides, resignations, squabbles over strategy and Park's struggle to deal with the legacy of her father, former dictator Park Chung-hee, have all contributed to a mini-meltdown.

The internal strife, largely the product of infighting between the progressive and conservative wings of her ruling New Frontier Party, are particularly embarrassing for a candidate running on a national unity platform.

"The problems will soon be sorted out," Park said on Tuesday, but with the election just 70 days away, a drastic campaign-team overhaul is a damaging prospect.

"Looking at the suicidal in-party fighting, many supporters of the conservative party must be feeling that it is on the path to defeat," the Korea Herald said in an editorial on Wednesday.

In an apparent damage-limitation exercise, Park's campaign chief of staff, Choi Kyung-hwan, resigned on Sunday, saying he took "all responsibility for the scepticism raised over Park's election victory".

But the infighting has continued, with other key advisers threatening to resign after Park sought to broaden her appeal by recruiting staff from both sides of the political spectrum.

"The internal strife is more serious than it looks," said Lee Yeon-ho, a professor of political science at Yonsei University.

"It exposes her inability to hold the party elite together and, if this continues, voters will start having doubts over her ability to lead the administration as a president," Lee said.

It is all a far cry from Park's triumphant, landslide nomination victory in the New Frontier Party's primary on August 20, after which polls made her the overwhelming front runner for the December 19 election.

While she still polls highest in a three-way race with her two rivals, leftist opposition candidate Moon Jae-in and independent software tycoon Ahn Cheol-soo, the latest surveys show a dead heat in a head-to-head with either.

Moon and Ahn are seen as splitting the liberal vote and there is widespread speculation that they will join camps before election day and forge a single, unified candidacy to challenge Park.

Park, 60, is the daughter of the military strongman who seized power in a coup in 1961 and was assassinated by his spy chief in 1979.

Her father, Park Chung-hee, is respected for transforming the impoverished, war-ravaged nation into an economic juggernaut, but is equally reviled for human-rights abuses during his iron-fisted rule.

As a result, his legacy has proved both a boon and a burden for Park Geun-hye's campaign, which has struggled to come up with a consistent strategy for addressing the issue.

Initially, Park fended off demands that she clarify her stance on her father's excesses by saying history would be his judge.

But as pressure mounted, she was finally obliged to make a public apology to the relatives of victims of her father's rule.

Her apology was largely well received, although some in her party's conservative base were upset that it was ever deemed necessary.

Cho Choong-bin, a politics professor at Kookmin University, said the issue of whether or not to apologise was symptomatic of the wider debate in her campaign and the ruling party at large.

While some insist she must focus on her conservative grass-roots support, others argue that the election will be won or lost on which candidate can win over the many undecided voters.

"The internal wrangling has complicated efforts to broaden her power base beyond her home province and conservatives," Cho said.