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Lee Jun-seok's victory ushers Korean politics into new era

Lee Jun-seok waves the flag of the main opposition People Power Party at the party headquarters in Seoul, Friday, after being elected as its new chairman. Yonhap
Lee Jun-seok waves the flag of the main opposition People Power Party at the party headquarters in Seoul, Friday, after being elected as its new chairman. Yonhap

Young politician to head main opposition as youngest-ever leader

By Jung Da-min

Lee Jun-seok, a 36-year-old politician who has never won a seat in the National Assembly, has rewritten the nation's modern political history by becoming the youngest-ever leader of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) ― the first time for a politician in his 30s to be elected to head either the ruling party or the main opposition party.

The young politician's rise in the conservative bloc is shaking the political landscape, according to political watchers, as it is reflecting growing public calls for change and innovation in politics, with the presidential election nine months away in March 2022.

In the PPP's party convention held Friday, Lee, a former member of the PPP's Supreme Council, was elected chairman, garnering 43.82 percent of the vote. Na Kyung-won, former floor leader of the PPP's predecessor, the Liberty Korea Party, followed him with 37.14 percent, and Rep. Joo Ho-young, another former floor leader of the PPP, trailed them with 14.02 percent. The other candidates, five-term lawmaker Rep. Cho Kyoung-tae and four-term lawmaker Rep. Hong Moon-pyo, received 2.81 percent and 2.22 percent of the votes, respectively.

Political circles have noted the young politician's rise, with heavyweights and potential presidential candidates issuing congratulatory messages to the young new leader.

"President Moon Jae-in told Lee on the phone that his election was wonderful and it will go down as something in the nation's political history," said Park Soo-hyun, senior presidential secretary for public communication.

Lee Jun-seok, right, then a member of the emergency committee of the Saenuri Party, a predecessor of the main opposition People Power Party, watches an exit poll broadcast after the 19th general election, seated beside Park Geun-hye, center, then-leader of the Saenuri Party, in this April 2012 file photo. Yonhap
Lee Jun-seok, right, then a member of the emergency committee of the Saenuri Party, a predecessor of the main opposition People Power Party, watches an exit poll broadcast after the 19th general election, seated beside Park Geun-hye, center, then-leader of the Saenuri Party, in this April 2012 file photo. Yonhap

Lee, a Harvard graduate who majored in computer science, was a young entrepreneur before beginning his political career in 2011. At age 26, he was recruited by Park Geun-hye, then-leader of the Grand National Party, a PPP predecessor, and became the youngest Supreme Council member in the party's history. But Lee joined Yoo Seong-min, a former four-term lawmaker who ran for the 2017 presidential election on the ticket of the minor conservative Bareun Party, after Park faced impeachment in 2017.

Although Lee has never been elected as a lawmaker during his decade in politics, he has expanded his political presence in the conservative bloc as a commentator and reform-minded politician. He has especially gained media attention recently following his outspoken and controversial comments on gender and other issues.

Political watchers said Lee's election has brought the party a new opportunity to present an alternative political force that can hold the supermajority ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) in check.

As a new leader of the PPP, Lee is facing daunting tasks to reform the PPP and integrate the conservative bloc, a prerequisite for winning the presidential election next year.

Lee Jun-seok, the new chairperson of the conservative main opposition People Power Party, rides a
Lee Jun-seok, the new chairperson of the conservative main opposition People Power Party, rides a "Ttareungyi" bike, which is part of a bicycle-sharing service run by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, to get to the National Assembly from a nearby subway station, Sunday, two days after being elected to lead the party. He said he has often used the bike-sharing system, and he has not hired a driver yet, even though a vehicle has been provided to him by the party. Yonhap

Political commentator Park Sang-byoung said the growing public distrust in established politicians was a major factor in Lee's election, and this public sentiment was expressed in the April 7 by-elections, in which the PPP took the mayoral seats of the countries' two largest cities of Seoul and Busan.

Following the by-elections, many political watchers noted that negative sentiment has grown toward the ruling DPK among young people in their 20s and 30s, many of whom voted for PPP candidate Oh Se-hoon, now the mayor of Seoul.

"There is a high possibility that young people in their 20s and 30s will hold the casting vote in the next presidential election, supposing that people in their 40s and 50s would vote for the liberal ruling DPK and those in their 60s or older would vote for the conservative main opposition PPP, based on public opinions shown in recent elections," Park said.

"It seems that PPP supporters have chosen Lee, not Na or Joo, as the new party leader who could win young people's votes. They also expect that Lee could expand the scope of the party's support base by embracing centrists, as Lee's messages have been differentiated from those by hard-line conservatives of the party who have been its main force."

But political watchers said the influence of the PPP's established politicians will not be diminished significantly, as many party members still support them. In the party chairperson election, Na garnered 40.93 percent support among party members, while Lee received 37.41 percent support from them, although Lee had 58.76 percent and Na had 28.27 percent among general voters outside the party.

Cha Jae-won, a professor of special affairs at the Catholic University of Pusan, said Lee's first task as the new party leader is to unite the party members, and expected him to assign both Na and Joo to important positions.

"In particular, Lee said he would bring Kim Chong-in, the veteran economist and politician who formerly headed the PPP as emergency committee chief, back to the party. I see Lee is a prepared leader for the party seeing the strategic value of borrowing experience and knowledge from veteran politicians like Kim, while promoting his own energy as a young politician."

The new leaders of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) pose during the party convention at party headquarters in Seoul, Friday. From left are the party's Supreme Council youth member Kim Yong-tae, and five Supreme Council members ― Rep. Bae Hyun-jin, Rep. Cho Su-jin, new PPP Chairman Lee Jun-seok, former three-term lawmaker Kim Jae-won and former two-term lawmaker Jung Mi-gyeong. Korea Times photo by Oh Dae-geun
The new leaders of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) pose during the party convention at party headquarters in Seoul, Friday. From left are the party's Supreme Council youth member Kim Yong-tae, and five Supreme Council members ― Rep. Bae Hyun-jin, Rep. Cho Su-jin, new PPP Chairman Lee Jun-seok, former three-term lawmaker Kim Jae-won and former two-term lawmaker Jung Mi-gyeong. Korea Times photo by Oh Dae-geun

Eyes are also on whether strong potential presidential candidate Yoon Seok-youl, the former prosecutor general who has been leading polls of presidential candidates in recent months after his resignation in early March, would join the PPP under Lee's leadership.

"Lee's election raised the possibility for Yoon to join the PPP as expectations grew that the PPP could be recognized as an alternative party to hold the ruling bloc in check," Cha said.

Park Sang-byoung also said Yoon is likely to join the PPP, but the former top prosecutor is likely to form his own political entity before joining the main opposition party.

Meantime, Lee's election as PPP chairman could also affect the presidential primary in the DPK, as ruling bloc supporters may also favor a young politician to meet the public expectations for a generational shift and political innovation.

Two-term lawmaker Rep. Park Yong-jin, 50, is a relatively young potential presidential candidate, who could win more support on the occasion of Lee's election, according to political watchers.


Jung Da-min damin.jung@koreatimes.co.kr


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