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Ban Ki-moon, one of the top three contenders for South Korea's upcoming presidential elections, is due to return to his home country on Thursday, where political parties will lock horns to recruit him.
Having stepped down last month as the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban is leaving New York and moving back to Seoul to presumably seek the presidency as his country grapples with its worst-ever political crisis.
President Park Geun-hye has been stripped of her powers and is currently facing impeachment after being named as an accomplice in an influence-peddling scandal involving her friend Choi Soon Sil. Park has denied wrongdoing but the South Korean public, frustrated by the nation's history of political scandals and crony capitalism, remains unconvinced and strongly supports impeachment.
Parliament voted to eject Park in early Dec and the country's Constitutional Court now has to either uphold or overturn the motion by June 21. If they approve of impeachment, a presidential election will be held within 60 days. Otherwise, an election for the five-year single-term presidency is scheduled for Dec. 20.
Ban has yet to officially declare his candidacy, but has hinted at the prospect. "I will devote my whole body to work hard if what I have seen and experienced as the UN secretary-general helps develop the Republic of Korea," he told Korean media on Dec. 20. "I will decide what to do after meeting people from every walk of life after returning home."
The 72 year-old diplomat, regarded as a conservative figure, does not officially have any political affiliations, so the process to recruit him could be fierce. "Parties will roll out the red carpet-and draw knives-when Ban returns this week," explained Scott Seaman, senior analyst at Eurasia in a recent note.
Among suitors is the newly-formed Barun Party (BP), which was launched just within the past two weeks and consists of over 30 lawmakers who defected from Park's ruling Saenuri Party.
"The more centrist People's Party is likely to court Ban as well and is rumored to be considering backing him jointly with the BP," Seaman noted.
Running under the Saenuri ticket is unlikely given the mass drop in public sentiment towards the conservative group in the aftermath of Park's scandal.
"With conservatives and their electoral support bases in disarray as the country continues to cope with the Choi Gate scandal, Ban will probably be the only viable candidate able to carry a center-right banner-assuming that is what he wants-and compete against what will be a tough challenge from center-left candidates," Seaman explained.
These leftist candidates include Moon Jae-in from the opposition Democratic Party and Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung of the opposition Minjoo Party. According to a Real Meter poll of 2,525 surveyed adults released on Monday, support for Ban stood at 21.5 percent, versus 26.8 percent for Moon and 12 percent for Lee.
Both Moon and Lee, in addition to other potential presidential contestants such as Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, may ramp up attacks on Ban's UN record and his ties with Park in an attempt to discredit him, Seaman noted.
Despite Ban's popularity among the electorate and attempts to form a campaign team, which may include economist Jeffrey Sachs in an informal advisory role, serious concerns about his chances remain.
Namely, "his ability to quickly and effectively make the transition from a diplomat and a technocrat to a politician in what will likely be a bruising fight to replace Park," Seaman said.
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