Popular software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo yesterday declared his candidacy for South Korea’s presidential election, setting up a three-way race with a number of potentially game-changing permutations.
“Now, I will run in the presidential election,” Ahn told a press conference, as he laid out a campaign platform of job creation, big business reform and reducing the country’s growing income gap.
“The people have expressed their desire to see reform in politics,” said the softspoken 50-year-old, whose announcement ended a year of fevered speculation about his presidential ambitions.
Ahn’s entry into the race has the potential to split the liberal vote between himself and Moon Jae-in — the chosen candidate of the leftist opposition Democratic United Party (DUP).
Analysts say that scenario would effectively hand the election to the ruling conservative New Frontier Party candidate, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of South Korea’s former military ruler Park Chung-hee.
The opposition had been hoping Ahn would reach an arrangement with Moon, with one of them stepping aside to unify support behind a sole candidate capable of challenging Park at the ballot box on Dec. 19.
However, in his announcement address, Ahn appeared to rule out any immediate accommodation with the DUP.
“It is not proper to talk about a unified candidate right now,” he said.
Most opinion polls have shown Park slightly ahead of Ahn, with Moon in third place, although the DUP candidate has received a substantial ratings boost since winning his party nomination on Sunday.
Jin Chang-soo, a political analyst at the independent Sejong Institute, said Ahn and Moon could be biding their time before “agreeing on a unified candidacy in a dramatic way at the last moment.”
Ahn has never participated in an election before or held any political office.
“It’s true that I don’t have much experience in politics, but I have worked in various fields, such as IT, medicine, business management and education and my exposure in such diverse sectors will be helpful,” he said.
“The country needs political reform, economic innovation and a digital-era mindset,” he added.
Jin said Ahn’s campaign would have a tough ride as he comes under increasing public scrutiny with no party machine to back him up.
“He still has to prove he is capable of leading the country,” Jin said.
In a book entitled Ahn Cheol-soo’s Thoughts — published in June and seen by some as a presidential manifesto — Ahn advocated Swedish-style social welfare and criticized South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s hardline policy toward North Korea.
“The policy that isolates the North and assumes its imminent collapse only intensified cross-border tension and damaged peace on the peninsula,” he said.
In his public appearances, he has repeatedly called for the overhaul of an economy dominated by a few powerful conglomerates.
However, last Thursday, he ruled out any drastic, overnight reforms, saying changes “must be made gradually” to keep the economic growth engine ticking over.
Hundreds of supporters— including teenagers in school uniform — cheered and chanted Ahn’s name during the press conference at the Salvation Army building in Seoul.
An unlikely political star admired by young liberal voters, but dismissed by critics as an unseasoned idealist, Ahn is best known for building the South’s first anti-virus software firm after a glittering career in medicine.
Ahn stood down as CEO of his AhnLan software firm in 2005 — though he remains board chairman — to pursue an academic career.
He is currently dean at the School of Convergence Science and Technology in Seoul National University.