Ahn Cheol Soo, founder of South Korea’s biggest antivirus software maker, began campaigning today as an independent candidate in the December presidential race to succeed Lee Myung Bak.
Ahn, 50, was running second in an opinion poll published after his announcement yesterday that he would challenge ruling party candidate Park Geun Hye and the main opposition’s Moon Jae In to be elected to a single five-year term to govern Asia’s fourth-biggest economy.
A trained medical doctor who went on to create software company Ahnlab Inc., Ahn must confront questions about his lack of governing experience to win voters dissatisfied with growing income disparity and rising youth unemployment. His candidacy may hinder opposition efforts to unseat the ruling party or weaken Park’s chances if he forges an alliance with Moon.
“People are expressing their desire for political reform through me,” Ahn said in his 15-minute speech yesterday. “By running in this presidential election, I want to fulfill their desires.”
Ahn paid his respects at the national cemetery today and attended a farewell party at his company headquarters in Seongnam, south of Seoul, a day after resigning from Ahnlab’s board to participate in the Dec. 19 election, according to an e-mailed statement from his spokesman Yu Min Yeong. In his declaration speech, Ahn promised to donate his stake in the company, worth more than $300 million, if he is elected.
The Sept. 18-19 poll by Seoul-based Realmeter and JTBC, a cable-television affiliate of the Joongang Ilbo newspaper, put support for Ahn at 26.5 percent, behind Park’s 35.7 percent and ahead of Moon at 24.3 percent. Ahn’s ratings rose 1.8 percentage points after he announced his presidential bid.
His support was at 48.3 percent, compared with 42.5 percent for Park, assuming a one-on-one showdown. The survey of 1,500 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
“Ahn and Moon will need to decide if they are going to join forces to beat Park,” said Jeong Han Wool, director of the Center for Public Opinion Research at East Asia Institute in Seoul. “If they choose to each go at it alone, they might end up splitting the votes, boosting Park’s chances of securing victory.”
Ahnlab shares, which have more than tripled over the past 12 months, fell 6.1 percent to 117,300 won at the close in Seoul today. Ahn declared his candidacy yesterday after the market closed.
He founded the company in 1995 and currently has a 29 percent stake in the business, worth 365 billion won ($324 million), according to his spokesman, Yu. The Wharton MBA holder emerged as a possible candidate last October after the independent he backed won the Seoul mayoral election. He has never run for or served in public office and has never joined a political party.
“I have no political experience but I don’t know that having a lot of it is necessarily a good thing,” Ahn said. “While I lack direct political experience, my diverse range of experiences in information technology, medicine, management and education, will be a plus, never a minus.”
A critic of chaebols, the family-run conglomerates like the Samsung and Hyundai groups, Ahn called for a “new economic model” and innovation that merges welfare and growth. In his latest book, Ahn advocates banning conglomerates’ cross-shareholding and limiting their investments in subsidiaries.
The ruling New Frontier Party last month nominated Park, the eldest daughter of former dictator Park Chung Hee who is attempting to become South Korea’s first female president. Moon, a human-rights lawyer and one-time chief of staff to former President Roh Moo Hyun, won his Democratic United Party’s nomination on Sept. 16. Moon was jailed in 1975 for joining street protests against the rule of Park’s father.
While Moon said the opposition must form a coalition with Ahn to win the presidential race, Ahn said today it was “inappropriate” to discuss such a move at this point. He did not comment on whether he will form a new political party.