(ATTN: UPDATES with Kim and Ahn's remarks)
By Lee Minji
SEOUL, Feb. 2 (Yonhap) -- Candidate registration opened Thursday for the ruling People Power Party's leadership election, with two main contenders, Reps. Kim Gi-hyeon and Ahn Cheol-soo, running neck and neck in the race to head the party through next year's general elections.
The office of President Yoon Suk Yeol is watching the race closely as it wants a Yoon loyalist to lead the party through the parliamentary elections that will determine whether Yoon would be able to push his agenda in the National Assembly in the remainder of his five-year term until 2027.
Yoon's office is widely believed to be backing Kim.
Kim used to lead the race, but recent opinion polls have shown that Ahn has overtaken him as front-runner, after former four-term lawmaker Na Kyung-won decided against running apparently under pressure from Yoon loyalists, and Yoo Seong-min, a former four-term lawmaker considered a key Yoon critic, also decided not to run.
Other candidates include Reps. Cho Kyoung-tae and Yoon Sang-hyun, as well as former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn and Kang Sin-eop, an attorney and former head of first lady Kim Keon Hee's fan club.
The party will pick the top four candidates through a vote of paying party members by Feb. 10 and hold a national convention on March 8 to elect a new leader. It will hold a runoff if none of the final candidates wins a majority and announce the results on March 12.
In a poll of 428 PPP supporters conducted by Realmeter between Tuesday and Wednesday, Ahn was ahead of the others at 43.3 percent, up 9.4 percentage points from the previous week. Kim, who led the race with 40 percent in the poll conducted a week earlier, came in at No. 2 with 36 percent.
Among other contenders, former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn placed third with 8 percent, followed by PPP Reps. Yoon Sang-hyun and Cho Kyung-tae at 2.8 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively.
This was the first poll by Realmeter conducted after former lawmaker Yoo Seong-min bowed out of the leadership race on Tuesday.
The pollster said many of Yoo's supporters may have moved on to Ahn instead, given that Yoo had earned 8.8 percent of support before he dropped out.
A hypothetical two-way race between Ahn and Kim, meanwhile, showed that Ahn was leading at 48.9 percent, up 8.1 percentage points from the previous poll, while Kim garnered 44.4 percent, down 3.6 percentage points.
The poll of 1,005 adults, when including those who did not identify themselves as PPP supporters, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.7 percentage points when limiting the results to PPP supporters.
Kim and Ahn both vowed to lead the party to victory in next year's parliamentary elections.
"I registered as a candidate to win the parliamentary elections, not to win the chairmanship race," Ahn told reporters following his registration, stressing that he is the perfect partner for Yoon.
"Should the PPP fail to become the No. 1 party in next year's general elections, the Yoon Suk Yeol administration would end up in a vegetative state," he said, claiming that winning in the capital area is key to the elections and he is more popular in the region than Kim.
Kim, meanwhile, took a swipe at Ahn, questioning his leadership qualities.
"All the parties he put his hands on failed, didn't they?" Kim said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency, referring to now-defunct parties Ahn used to lead, including the People's Party. "How could he lead this big party, a ruling party, with that kind of leadership?"
"Candidate Ahn is a slightly different kind of person from the president," Kim also said.