Ruling party’s leadership race plagued by ideological attacks, president’s meddling

Posted on : 2023-02-08 17:22 KST Modified on : 2023-02-08 17:22 KST
There are growing concerns inside the PPP about the pandemonium surrounding the party convention scheduled for March 8
Candidates for People Power Party leader Ahn Cheol-soo (left) and Kim Gi-hyeon (right) sit next to one another in a studio for a televised party event on Feb. 7. (Yonhap)
Candidates for People Power Party leader Ahn Cheol-soo (left) and Kim Gi-hyeon (right) sit next to one another in a studio for a televised party event on Feb. 7. (Yonhap)

South Korea’s ruling People Power Party had hoped its convention on March 8 would be a chance to bury the hatchet and move on. But instead, it’s turning into an excuse to fling mud and relitigate past squabbles.

On top of a debate over President Yoon Suk-yeol’s meddling in party business and a combined offensive by pro-Yoon party hardliners, rumors are swirling about the prospect of Yoon leaving the party amid an outdated smear campaign over ideological allegiance. As the ruling party resorts to an unprecedented level of regressive behavior, some members of the party are afraid that this spells doom down the road for the general election in April 2024.

The ideological offensive launched the previous day was taken to the next level on Tuesday by lawmaker Kim Gi-hyeon, a candidate for PPP leadership, who asked rival lawmaker Ahn Cheol-soo in a Facebook post whether Ahn “still thinks there aren’t any spies.”

Kim took Ahn to task for some of his past remarks. “Is communist godfather Shin Young-bok an intellectual that you admire? Did the THAAD deployment damage the national interest? Are you still committed to upholding the Sunshine Policy? Is Deng Xiaoping, the dictator who suppressed the protests at Tiananmen Square, really a role model?”

“Many questions are being raised about whether [Ahn’s] past remarks and behavior really conform to the values espoused by our party,” Kim told reporters.

“Is Ahn qualified to be leader of the People Power Party when he supports the newspaper unions that are responsible for un-Korean reporting?” Kim had asked the day before.

Kim’s remarks came the day after lawmaker Lee Chul-gyu, one of Yoon’s closest allies, described Ahn on Monday as “someone who respects communist Shin Young-bok.”

Kim’s ideological offensive appears aimed at shoring up his standing among conservative party members as he faces a crisis in support.

In mid-January, when he was cruising along at number one in the polls, he called on his rivals to “refrain from going negative” and stressed “a politics of solidarity, tolerance and fairness.”

But former lawmaker Na Kyung-won’s exit from the race led to criticism about the Yoon clique’s heavy-handed behavior from party members, who sent Ahn to the top of the polls. That prompted the clique to put tolerance on the back burner, with Yoon himself dubbing Ahn as a “disruptor and enemy.”

During this process, Shin Pyeong, an attorney who is regarded as Yoon’s mentor, said that Yoon would leave the PPP and form his own party if Ahn is elected party leader in what came across as a threat to party members. Yoon’s presidential office and allies have also made remarks that seem to deny the help Ahn provided by throwing his weight behind Yoon during the presidential election.

Ahn responded to the attacks during a meeting on Tuesday when he announced his vision for the party convention. “Didn’t I help [the party] come to power by merging my campaign with Yoon’s? I’d say that proves my point,” he said.

Kim Yeong-woo, head of Ahn’s campaign committee, also commented on the issue during an interview with CBS. “So why was it appropriate [for Ahn and Yoon] to combine their campaigns, and why did he stay silent when [Ahn] joined the party? In the end, this is just happening because of Kim Gi-hyeon’s poor standing in the polls.”

There are growing concerns inside the PPP about the pandemonium surrounding the party convention.

“I think that party members will regard this as [Yoon’s] meddling in the election. Party members aren’t idiots,” lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said in an interview with MBC.

“If merging [Yoon and Ahn’s] campaigns had such a negative impact, Yoon and his allies ought to be harshly disciplined for actively arranging that merger,” wrote Kim Yong-tae, a former member of the PPP’s youth supreme committee who now hopes to join the main supreme committee, in a critical post on Facebook.

“Seeing the president inserting himself into party business to such a shocking degree seems to be raising doubts among party members about whether we can win the general election. It’s impossible to sway public opinion through presidential power or party attitudes,” said a veteran lawmaker from the Yeongnam region in the southeast.

By Lee Jae-hoon, staff reporter; Jang Ye-ji, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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