SEOUL, Jan. 2 (Xinhua) -- A presidential hopeful of South Korea's biggest opposition party took the top spot in all of New Year's presidential polls by local media outlets, beating former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who is seen as the last remaining hope in the conservative camp.
An early presidential election is forecast to be held as President Park Geun-hye was impeached in the parliament on Dec. 9 over a scandal involving Park and her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil, who is suspected of meddling in state affairs behind the scenes.
The constitutional court has up to 180 days to rule, but the court is widely expected to permanently remove Park from office in late February or in early March. A presidential election must be held within 60 days after the final ruling.
According to a conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper survey released on Monday, Moon Jae-in, former chairman of the main opposition Minjoo Party, took the first place under all scenarios, overtaking Ban, whose second, five-year term as the UN chief ended two days earlier.
The career diplomat has never officially declared his run for South Korean presidency, but he has been viewed as the most powerful presidential candidate in the conservative camp. He is forecast to come back to his hometown in mid-January.
Under a simulated showdown between Moon and Ban, the former beat the latter by 42.2 percent to 35.5 percent based on a scenario of coalition between Ban and Ahn Cheol-soo, former chief of the minor opposition People's Party which is composed of former members of the Minjoo Party.
Under the three-way scenario, Moon gained 39.3 percent support in a simulated presidential election, followed by Ban with 28.7 percent and Ahn with 11.4 percent.
The four-way scenario, including a candidate from the ruling Saenuri Party, also gave Moon the first place with 37 percent. He was trailed by Ban with 24.8 percent, Ahn with 11.1 percent and the Saenuri player with 2.5 percent.
In a poll by liberal newspaper Hankyoreh, Moon outwent Ban by a wider margin. In a showdown, the former won the latter by 51.8 percent to 35.9 percent. The three-way scenario gave Moon the highest 44.6 percent, surpassing Ban's 30.0 percent and Ahn's 13.7 percent.
The presidential impeachment and candlelight vigils, which had lasted for 10 straight Saturdays and drew a total of 10 million people, hit the hardest support for the former UN chief as he is known to be close to President Park and her party.
According to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, Ban's support tumbled to 17.4 percent in December from 27.4 percent three months earlier. In the same period, Moon's approval scores advanced from 16.5 percent to 24 percent.
Moon's dominance, however, is not a foregone conclusion as there are numerous variables awaiting ahead of the early presidencial race.
In the Minjoo Party's primary, Moon can be beaten by other presidential hopefuls such as Lee Jae-myung, mayor of Seongnam city to the southeast of Seoul, who moved into the third place in recent presidential surveys for his active participation in the candlelit vigils and progressive welfare policies during his mayorship.
Ban's comeback to South Korea could lift or pull down his apporval rating as he is suspected of having received around 230,000 U.S. dollars from a South Korean business tycoon when he was the country's foreign minister and even when working as the UN chief, according to local media speculations.
The early presidential election can act as an upper hand for Ban as it shortens a verification period as next leader, but the influence-peddling scandal further raised people's standard for moral qualification. It can lead Ban to have troubles in explaining the media speculations.
Whether Ban would side with a political party or create a new party can be a decisive factor. The People's Party, composed mostly of former Minjoo Party members, and conservative lawmakers leaving the ruling Saenuri Party have appealed to Ban forming a so-called "third playing field."
The third playing field refers to a grand coalition where non-mainstreamers from both the ruling and opposition blocs gather and compete to field a single presidential candidate.
Before his retirement, the former UN chief told local journalists in New York about his preference for a bipartisan cooperation and a political grand coalition, indicating his willingness to join the third playing field.
Meanwhile, Moon ranked first in presidential surveys by Joongang Ilbo newspaper and Yonhap news agency.
The Joongang survey showed Moon beating Ban by 47.2 percent to 39.8 percent in a showdown. The runner-up to President Park in the 2012 election also led the three-way scenario with 41.8 percent, far exceeding Ban's 34.6 percent and Ahn's 14.5 percent.
Yonhap poll showed 21.6 percent of 2,022 respondents favoring Moon the most as their next leader. Ban was 4.4 percentage points behind Moon with 17.2 percent.