A gesture Moon may soon be repeating

“MY BEST quality is that I am persistent. My worst is that I am no fun.” Moon Jae-in’s assessment of himself in “South Korea Asks”, a series of interviews published in January, is one with which many South Koreans, whether they like or loathe him, would probably agree. Most have an opinion of him. He has been in the political arena for well over a decade, as chief of staff to the late liberal president Roh Moo-hyun from 2003 to 2008; then as a presidential candidate himself in 2012, when he lost a two-way race to Park Geun-hye, by 48% to 52%.

Ms Park’s term came to an early end on March 10th when the constitutional court upheld a motion parliament approved in December to impeach her. The country now faces a snap presidential election on May 9th. After almost a decade of conservative rule, the ballot looks likely to be a victory for the more socially liberal Minjoo party: its support is the highest it has ever been, at 50%. Mr Moon, who led the party until January last year, has topped the polls for president for almost three months. The latest sounding puts his support at 35% in a crowded field.

That is more than twice the level of the next-most-popular contenders, An Chul-soo of the People’s Party and Ahn Hee-jung, another Minjoo candidate. Lee Jae-myung, the Minjoo mayor of Seongnam, a city south of Seoul, became known as the “fizzy drink” candidate, thanks to his tendency to make attention-grabbing remarks. He shot up the polls in December, as discontent with Ms Park peaked, before losing some of his effervescence. But he is still ahead of the best-polling conservative, Hong Joon-pyo, who musters only 8%.

The election consists of just one round, with no minimum threshold for victory. The four biggest parties are all planning to field a candidate, as are several smaller ones. Party primaries must be concluded by April 16th. In Minjoo’s, which takes place in four regional stages, two of which are complete, all voters may cast ballots regardless of party affiliation. So far, Mr Moon is well ahead. And in the election proper, it is hard to imagine Mr Moon’s opponents coalescing with enough enthusiasm around one of the other candidates to deny him the presidency.

If he is elected, Mr Moon would bring change. He is much more down-to-earth than Ms Park, who was criticised for her aloofness. That may be thanks to his upbringing: whereas she is the daughter of a former president, he grew up poor and was, before his political career, a human-rights lawyer. In a recent televised debate among the Minjoo candidates, Mr Moon said he would be a “Gwanghwamun president”, referring to the district in the centre of Seoul where millions rallied over five months to demand Ms Park’s dismissal. He would move the presidential office from the Blue House to Gwanghwamun, and open the official residence to the public. He claimed Ms Park had become embroiled in scandal because she “sealed herself off in her Blue House palace”; he promised instead to stop off at local markets on his way home from work.

This appeals to the many who disliked Ms Park’s imperious ways. She continues to be surrounded by 20-odd security staff in her private home, where she lives alone. Mr Moon says he would do away with the presidential guard, making do with protection from the police instead.

Before her impeachment, Ms Park refused to co-operate with the prosecutors; after it, she appeared to rebuke the constitutional court by saying the truth would “eventually be known”. There is little question that Mr Moon, in contrast, would try to tackle the corruption and nepotism that produced the crisis, and to curb the state’s special treatment of the chaebol, the conglomerates at the heart of the scandal. But Seo Bokyeung of Sogang University in Seoul says Mr Moon is caught between an ideological push for an overhaul of South Korea’s institutions and a pragmatic appeal to a broad majority.

Mr Moon has been courting voters who were turned off by his campaign in 2012, says Hong Jong-hak, his chief policy adviser. The groundswell against Ms Park has dampened the influence of conservative media outlets; their attacks on Mr Moon have had little impact. That has allowed him to “exhibit his full colour”, says Ms Seo, making much of his marksmanship during a stint in the special forces, for instance. Michael Green, a former American official, writes that, under Roh, Mr Moon was seen “as a steadying voice in an otherwise turbulent, ideological and divided Blue House”. According to Gallup, a pollster, more than a third of Mr Moon’s supporters call themselves “centrist”.

Many on the right continue to associate Mr Moon with Roh, his liberal mentor and a beacon for South Korea’s left. (When Roh jumped off a cliff to his death in 2009, as a corruption investigation closed in, it was Mr Moon who tearfully announced the news.) Hong Joon-pyo recently said his opponent’s supporters were “armed with leftist ideology” and in particular claimed that they would try to appease North Korea. Yet in anticipation of an early election, Mr Moon has for some months been trying to straddle the political divide over the North, in which the left typically favours dialogue and the right, sanctions.

Mr Moon says he would visit North Korea before any other country if he thought it would help negotiations, and wants to re-open the Kaesong industrial complex, a joint manufacturing facility on the border that had been the last point of co-operation between the two governments until Ms Park shut it in 2016. He has made clear that he wants to renegotiate the terms of America’s installation in South Korea of THAAD, an anti-missile system that China vehemently opposes. Yet he has been careful not to insist on its removal, calling for a “practical decision” on its deployment in consultation with America and China.

In much the same vein, Mr Moon says he wants to overcome South Korea’s regional divisions. His advisers say he wants to be the first president to gain the support of both Jeolla, a liberal stronghold in the south-west, and Gyeongsang, its conservative rival in the south-east. Rather than the victory of one province over another, they explain, Mr Moon wants to bring about “a national celebration”. That seems unlikely, given the febrile political atmosphere. But whether a cause for celebration or not, his election seems a foregone conclusion.