(2nd LD) (News Focus) Ban’s presidential prospects grow with No. 1 position in polls

The presidential prospects of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appear to be growing as he boasts a consistent lead in opinion polls with a number of figures from his hometown -- the central Chungcheong region -- taking up core positions in South Korean politics, observers here said Monday.

Although he has never explicitly mentioned his intention to run in next year's presidential election, Ban, whose second five-year term as U.N. helmsman ends in December, has long been considered a formidable presidential runner.

Recent opinion polls have reaffirmed his steady popularity among the general populace.

In a survey conducted last week by the local daily Joong-Ang Ilbo, Ban garnered a support rating of 32.7 percent. He was trailed by Moon Jae-in, former leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, with 17.3 percent and Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo, former co-chair of the minor opposition People's Party, with 8.1 percent.

Ban also held a comfortable lead in a survey conducted last week by the local newspaper Chosun Ilbo and pollster Media Research. The survey put Ban's approval rating at 27.4 percent, while Moon and Ahn received 16.5 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively.

In another opinion poll, carried out last week by RayTheP, a political news wing of the Maeil Business Newspaper, and pollster Realmeter, Ban also ranked first with an approval rating of 23.7 percent. Moon and Ahn received 18.5 percent and 10.3 percent, respectively.

Despite his hitherto ambivalent stance over his presidential ambitions, the prevailing view is that he would run in the crucial election slated for December of next year on the ticket of the ruling Saenuri Party. The prediction has gained traction especially since Saenuri does not have a clear favorite to represent the party as its champion in the election to fill South Korea's top elected office, after incumbent President Park Geun-hye steps down in February 2018.

Mindful of a lack of credible presidential hopefuls, the ruling party has been seeking to court Ban. In particular, the party's faction loyal to President Park has seemingly thrown its weight behind Ban.

Political pundits say Ban may formally kick off his political activities when he returns home early next year. During a meeting with South Korea's parliamentary leaders earlier this month, Ban said he would come to Seoul "before mid-January.

"His presidential campaign is likely to be launched early next year although it is, I believe, fair to say that he has already begun activities to prepare for the race," Jun Kye-wan, a political analyst, told Yonhap News Agency.

Jun added that Ban may now be seriously mulling whether he will join hands with the pro-Park faction in the ruling party as such a tie-up with the mainstream faction could lead to a dip in his popularity.

Further brightening Ban's election prospects is the recent rise of the Chungcheong region on the country's political map.

The region has long remained on the political periphery as other regions, such as southeastern Gyeongsang and southwestern Jeolla, have effectively dominated the nation's political landscape.

Chief among politicians from Chungcheong are Rep. Chung Jin-suk, who serves as the ruling party's floor leader, and Lee Won-jong, the presidential chief of staff. The latter hails from Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province.

Recently, Kim Jung-hoon, who was also born in Jecheon, rose to the top post of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. In the military arena, Army Gen. Leem Ho-young, who is from Eumseong, North Chungcheong Province, has recently taken up the post of the deputy chief of the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command.

The emergence of these figures from the once-marginalized Chungcheong region has further raised expectations that a native of the region could win the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in next year's crucial election.

The seemingly strong likelihood of Ban's presidential run has given rise to a series of groups cropping up to collectively support him. Some of them, such as the "Pro-Ban Unification Party," have registered themselves with the National Election Commission, the state election watchdog.

Several civic groups in support of Ban have also been formed. Among them is "Firefly," an organization consisting of Ban's fans, which plans to hold a national convention in November to begin its activities in earnest.

On the other hand, Ban's accent as a powerful presidential contender has triggered moves by the opposition parties to keep him in check.

Opposition politicians and his potential foes have argued that Ban, a former career diplomat, may not be qualified to wade through the rough waters of domestic politics. They point to the fact that he has never held an elected office in his public life.

Some of them also highlighted that Ban has failed to make any breakthrough in cross-border relations or in the decades-old nuclear standoff with Pyongyang during his two terms that began in January 2007.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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