|Reps. Ahn Cheol-soo, right, and Kim Gi-hyeon applaud without making eye contact during an event held by the ruling People Power Party at Dongdaemun District Office in eastern Seoul, Sunday. Ahn and Kim are in a close race for the March 8 competition to select a new party chairman. Yonhap|
Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo claims presidential office is intervening in ruling party's election of new leader
By Kang Hyun-kyung
In politics, yesterday's ally can be today's enemy. A recent tug-of-war between two big-name politicians in the ruling camp is a fresh reminder of the adage.
President Yoon Suk Yeol and Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo of the ruling People Power Party (PPP) successfully teamed up in the March 9 presidential election last year to field a unified candidate from the opposition camp. Now they have been pitted against each other amid the PPP's heated race to select a new chairman.
On Sunday, Rep. Ahn alleged in a social media post that the presidential office is intervening in the ruling party's process to elect a new chairman.
"I urge the PPP's interim committee and the National Election Commission to take necessary measures to stop speculations in media coverage that quoted an unnamed high-ranking official of the presidential office as commenting that a certain candidate has President Yoon's back or not," his social media post reads. "What's happening now is the presidential office's obvious intervention in the election, a serious violation of democracy."
His accusation came as an unnamed official from the presidential office accused Rep. Ahn of becoming a stumbling block to President Yoon's management of state affairs with his self-serving politics.
"From now on, we will consider those who seek political gains by using terms such as 'Yoon haek gwan' destroyers or enemies," an official from the presidential office was quoted as saying.
The term "Yoon haek gwan," which is translated into English as "Yoon's close confidants," has been widely used since last year when the then embattled ruling party leader Lee Jun-seok used it to mock lawmakers loyal to Yoon.
The official said President Yoon feels the expression is disrespectful because it aims to attack or insult him, noting that the president is willing to take constructive criticism about himself or those who are close to him.
The official made the furious reaction days after Rep. Ahn criticized a group of lawmakers close to President Yoon on a YouTube channel.
"I think the well-being of the president has never been in their minds. All they care about is whether they will secure their candidacy to run in the National Assembly elections next year on the PPP's ticket," Ahn said.
He accused fellow lawmaker Rep. Chang Je-won of orchestrating the faction to make the group more exclusive and self-serving rather than working for the greater cause of the party.
Ahn's accusations of the lawmakers close to President Yoon come as he is in a tight leadership race with Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon, who has been pitching himself as a confidant of Yoon.
Kim, a judge-turned-lawmaker, pitched himself as one of the few politicians having President Yoon's ear, stressing his bond with the president.
Public opinion survey results vary. Some recent polls find that Ahn is ahead of Kim within the margin of error. People affiliated with the PPP will cast their ballots to select the party's new chairperson and several other members of the decision-making Supreme Council.
To entice PPP voters, Ahn also stressed his ties with President Yoon, saying his successful integration into the ruling party is owing to his coalition with Yoon and was formed during the presidential election held last year.
"I played a key role in achieving government change, as I dropped my candidacy to support Yoon. The government change will be completed only when the PPP wins next year's National Assembly elections. I think the Yoon-Ahn coalition will be the perfect combination to make that happen," he said.
The presidential office said President Yoon remains neutral and has no particular candidate in mind for the leadership contest.
But Ahn's remark about a Yoon-Ahn coalition is said to have enraged President Yoon. An official from the presidential office said the president is preoccupied with handling a set of grave security and economic issues but has found himself caught up in the ruling party's convention because of Ahn.
Lee Cheol-soon, a professor of political science at Pusan National University, said it is rare for the presidential office or a sitting president to interfere in the internal politics of the ruling party.
"It won't help them because they have nothing to gain," he said.
The clash between Yoon and Ahn, albeit indirectly, sparked speculation about the future of their partnership.
President Yoon won the presidential election last March over his rival Lee Jae-myung with a razor-thin margin. The gap between Yoon and Lee was a mere 0.75 percentage points. The closest race ever enabled political analysts to conclude that, if not for Ahn bowing out, it could have been even more difficult for Yoon to win the presidential election.
Yoon himself acknowledged this, during a dinner with U.S. President Joe Biden after their summit held in Seoul last May 21. Yoon is known to have introduced Ahn to Biden, saying he was the person who helped him to win the presidential election.
The heated competition between Reps. Ahn and Kim in the PPP's leadership race has had a spillover effect on President Yoon's ties with Ahn. Tension mounted last Friday when the presidential office sacked former three-term lawmaker Kim Young-woo from the Presidential Committee of National Cohesion. Kim has been serving as campaign manager for the Ahn Cheol-soo party leadership campaign.
In a press release, the presidential office said Kim's a role in Ahn's campaign makes it difficult for him to maintain neutrality in the party's affairs, and therefore the presidential office decided to dismiss him.
Kim said he respects the presidential office's decision.