(Bloomberg) -- South Korean software tycoon Ahn Cheol-soo, who once led opinion polls in the presidential race, is finding his centrist approach and platform of championing markets drowned out by public demands for a clampdown on the country’s scandal-hit elite.
The 55-year-old former medical doctor is trying to channel France’s Emmanuel Macron after falling behind former party comrade Moon Jae-in ahead of the May 9 election. Moon has pulled ahead by vowing to crack down on graft, following influence-peddling allegations that forced former President Park Geun-hye out of office. A Gallup poll published Friday put Moon’s support at 40 percent, compared with 24 percent for Ahn.
“Ahn presents himself as the third way in a political landscape divided between reformists and conservatives,” said Nam Chang-hee, a political science professor at South Korea’s Inha University. He’s “driving home topics like pollution and technology, which don’t really help him stand out” in the current climate.
Ahn, who rose to fame in South Korea in the 1990’s when he coded and distributed an anti-virus computer vaccine for free, has billed himself as the most qualified candidate to boost the competitiveness of Asia’s fourth-largest economy. In an attempt to boost his profile against Moon -- a former presidential chief of staff -- Ahn has compared himself to Macron, the French presidential front-runner who won the first round of voting.
Both graduated from elite schools, have successful business backgrounds and lead minor political parties. French voters go to the polls on May 7 to decide between the former investment banker and far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen.
Ahn’s party holds fewer than 40 seats in the 300-member National Assembly. Should he be elected, he would need to convince bigger parties to work with him to deal with the crises facing the country, including North Korea’s nuclear threat, reform of the country’s big chaebol business groups, slowing growth and an aging work force.
Ahn has advocated higher welfare spending, stiffer capital gains taxes and caution on free trade deals. Ahn and Moon both pledge to reform the family-run chaebol, the biggest 10 of which own more than a quarter of all Korean business assets.
There is no definitive answer to chaebol reform, Ahn said in written responses to questions. "Chaebol can change only when minority shareholders, investors and the market sufficiently hold them in check, based on the most basic legal and institutional measures in place."
The two leading candidates previously criticized Park’s hard line on North Korea but have now grown more hawkish, demanding a halt to nuclear development before dialogue.
“The Kim Jong Un regime cannot be predicted rationally,” Ahn said in his written comments. “The most urgent task is to improve relations between the two Koreas and prevent war through international coordination.”
The goal of sanctions should be paving the way for talks, Ahn added.
“On some of the issues on North Korea, the lack of a clear distinction in policy between Ahn and Moon probably does not benefit Ahn,” said Timothy Rich, an assistant professor at Western Kentucky University who studies East Asia politics. “Ahn presents himself as an outsider with a fresh perspective not tied to party networks. His business background would also appeal to those concerned about economic opportunities.”
The deployment of a U.S. missile shield in South Korea has become a campaign issue for both Ahn and Moon. While Moon has denounced an accelerated timetable for it to be rolled out, Ahn has said it should happen in accordance with the planned schedule.
In the presidential election in 2012, Ahn allowed Moon to be the opposition’s main candidate against Park, even though polls suggested he would have been competitive. Park defeated Moon for a single, five-year term, becoming the nation’s first female leader.
Park was arrested on bribery charges in March after the constitutional court upheld her impeachment. She denies seeking bribes for herself or her friend Choi Soon-sil from companies including Samsung Electronics Co.
Ahn worked as a physician before founding South Korea’s leading anti-virus software developer Ahnlab Inc. He formed the People’s Party last year after breaking off from Moon’s party, opting to tap into public dissatisfaction with a two-party system that has dominated Korea’s political landscape.