Yoon Suk-yeol spent the final days of 2021 on what should have been one of the easiest stops in his campaign to become South Korean president, speaking to his conservative party’s base in the city of Daegu. Supporters shouted “We love you” as they waved flags and raised banners reading “Yoon, the World’s Best President.”

But his backers were drowned out by protest chants from crowds loyal to the country’s last conservative leader, Park Geun-hye, who blame the former top prosecutor for her downfall in a corruption probe. Yoon avoided impromptu speeches and nodded as he sought to avoid any more gaffes like those that have helped plunge his candidacy into crisis.

The one-time front-runner trailed ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung by 12 percentage points in the presidential election scheduled for March 9, according to a survey released Saturday by Hankook Research. On Wednesday, Yoon hit the panic button, announcing that he had disbanded his campaign team for an overhaul and would soon “show the public the changed image of Yoon Suk-yeol in a completely different form.”

“He really has got no clue,” said Jeong Seo-yeon, 32, a local resident who was walking near a national cemetery in Daegu when Yoon visited on Dec. 30. “Think worshiping some ancestors would give him extra votes? How about dealing with some real problems — of those who are still alive?”

It’s not just the voters on the ground who see Yoon’s chances as fading. Citigroup Inc. researchers said in a note Wednesday that they saw Lee, of the left-leaning Democratic Party, as winning the election, changing its earlier projections of a Yoon victory. They now gave Lee a 60% chance of becoming the next president.

Yoon’s campaign has been beset by infighting as he struggles to quiet ethical controversies including whether his wife exaggerated her credentials to get a job, something he denies. The political newcomer has also made repeated verbal blunders, saying, for instance, that the poor and less educated don’t understand the necessity of freedom.

Yoon Suk-yeol (second from left), the presidential election candidate for South Korea's main opposition People Power Party, attends a ceremony to mark the first stock trading day of the year at the Korea Exchange in Seoul on Monday. | AFP-JIJI
Yoon Suk-yeol (second from left), the presidential election candidate for South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party, attends a ceremony to mark the first stock trading day of the year at the Korea Exchange in Seoul on Monday. | AFP-JIJI

Yoon’s decision to replace his staff was precipitated by public friction with his campaign chief, Kim Chong-in. Kim had accused the candidate of being unwilling to accept advice, struggling to work with someone with differing views and failing to offer a vision for the presidency. Yoon had also openly clashed with the 36-year-old People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok, who in return criticized Yoon. But Yoon and Lee said they reached an agreement late Thursday to put aside their differences and focus on an election win.

“Yoon can replace all the officials he wants, but that is not likely to fix the problem,” said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University in Seoul. “The real problem lies in Yoon. Politics is all about mediating conflicts. Yoon failed to show that.”

Yoon’s slide risks squandering a chance to take back power for the conservatives, who were cast into the opposition with Park’s impeachment, removal and subsequent conviction for corruption five years ago. Polls have shown for months that the public wants change amid frustration with urban housing prices that shot up under President Moon Jae-in, the Democratic Party’s top standard-bearer.

Lee Jae-myung has been facing his own troubles. The former governor of Gyeonggi, the country’s most populous province, has spent much of his time on the campaign trail denying links to a real estate speculation scandal that took place under his watch. He has been forced to issue apologies about the behavior of his son, including reports in the Chosun newspaper alleging that he frequented online gambling sites.

Yoon has pledged to rein in real estate prices, take a tough line with North Korea and implement a 100-day emergency rescue plan for a pandemic-hit economy that would provide a quick and hefty financial injection.

“I will deeply reflect on the steps that disappointed my supporters, especially those in their 20s and 30s,” Yoon said Wednesday as he tried to turn around his campaign. “I will not say what I want to say, but what the people want to hear.”

Some of Yoon’s biggest critics come from within his own party, especially among supporters of Park, the daughter of the country’s postwar dictator who’s seen by many conservatives as their leader. As a prosecutor, Yoon was at the forefront of the investigation that led to Park’s fall and Moon’s rise.

“Yoon’s a cuckoo. We shouldn’t be voting for a person like that,” said Ham Geun-hyeong, one of the Park supporters who followed him around. “Yoon is the one who jailed President Park — just like a hatched cuckoo chick that pushes host eggs out of the nest of other bird species.”

Many independents are disappointed with both candidates, leading to concerns that Yoon’s struggles may further suppress turnout. More than half of voters want to see both candidates replaced, according to a poll by Hangil Research survey released on Dec. 28.

In Daegu, young voter Kim Tae-hoon is disappointed in his choices and expects fewer people to vote.

“This election is much like the movie, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,’ except we’re missing ‘the good’ here,” Kim said.

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