Arrest warrant hearing to be pivotal moment in Lee Jae-myung's political career

Posted on : 2023-09-25 17:06 KST Modified on : 2023-09-25 17:06 KST
Not only will the court’s decision on the arrest warrant seal Lee’s political fate, but it is also expected to have major ramifications for the ruling and opposition political parties ahead of next year’s general election
(graphic by Cho Jeong-eun)
(graphic by Cho Jeong-eun)

Lee Jae-myung, the leader of Korea’s top opposition Democratic Party, is set to face a pivotal point in his political career on Tuesday when he appears in court for a judge to determine the validity of the warrant sought for his arrest.

This comes two years after prosecutors first launched their sweeping investigation starting with the probe into alleged illicit dealings in a land development project in Daejang, a neighborhood in Seongnam, in September 2021, which refocused around Lee after Yoon Suk-yeol took office last year.

Not only will the court’s decision seal Lee’s political fate, but it is also expected to have major ramifications for the ruling and opposition political parties ahead of next year’s general election.

“If Lee is jailed, there will be a [factional] battle within the party. If he is not jailed, it’ll propel a rally attack by Lee,” an incumbent Democratic Party lawmaker told Hankyoreh on Sunday.

Whether the factional divide within Lee’s party — which intensified after a minimum of 29 Democrats broke away from the party line and voted to approve a motion for the arrest of Lee on Thursday — will go any further hinges on whether the arrest warrant is granted.

Those in the Democratic Party who voted in favor of the motion have refrained from revealing their identities amid warnings from Lee’s supporters that they will “sniff out and purge” those who voted against the party leader. Their silence seems to stem from a desire to wait and see what comes of the warrant review.

If the court recognizes the need to detain Lee and issues the warrant it will deal an irreversible blow to the political career of Lee, who has been calling his situation “oppression of the political opposition by a dictatorship led by prosecutors.”

The Democratic Party, which has mobilized all its might to oppose the probe into Lee, will also face accusations of not only being a “shield” for Lee, but now the party of “corruption” in the run-up to the general election.

However, pro-Lee circles are intimating that the court that matters most is that of public opinion. One lawmaker that belongs to Lee being placed in detention could paradoxically “serve as an advantage in the general election if it fuels sentiment that the election should serve as a judgment of the administration.”

In other words, the unprecedented detaining of a sitting opposition leader could turn public opinion against the ruling party.

However, conflict over who should lead the party remains a constant among Democrats. If Lee is detained, whoever is elected floor leader on Tuesday will automatically be placed at the helm of the emergency interim leadership committee. The dominant view is that allowing interim leadership to stay at the helm for very long could pose problems in the general election.

According to the party bylaws, if the party’s leader vacates their position with eight or months left in their term, the new leadership must be elected at a party convention. But seeing as the National Assembly is in regular session, it is likely that the interim leader will remain in place until October and November before the party chooses to either select a new head of its emergency steering committee or transition to an early election committee system ahead of April’s general election.

If either of these options is taken, it will likely fan the flames of internecine conflict between the mainstream blocs and non-mainstream blocs of the party over the composition of the emergency leadership committee, which will wield nominating authority for the general election.

In addition, those in the party’s middle ground who largely threw their weight behind the push to vote down the arrest motion to avoid infighting are bound to lurch to the wings if Lee is detained. Not only has Lee’s request that lawmakers vote down the motion for his arrest severely eroded the party’s trust in its leadership, but the likelihood of pulling off a nomination process for April’s elections behind bars is low.

“New variables arise with each day in the run-up to a general election, and I don’t see how he could keep on top of things if he’s in jail,” commented a Democratic lawmaker who has served multiple terms. “The idea of him overseeing nominations from prison is not realistic.”

Former President Moon Jae-in speaks with Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung at the Green Hospital in Seoul’s Jungnang District on Sept. 19, where the latter was hospitalized due to deteriorating health amid a weeks-long hunger strike. (Yonhap)
Former President Moon Jae-in speaks with Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung at the Green Hospital in Seoul’s Jungnang District on Sept. 19, where the latter was hospitalized due to deteriorating health amid a weeks-long hunger strike. (Yonhap)

If the arrest warrant is dismissed, Lee is expected to ride the momentum of this initial victory in his war with prosecutors into a struggle against the ruling camp at large and take the reins of his party’s nominations for the general election. If this comes to fruition, there’s not only a possibility of Lee denying nominations for those who don’t belong to his faction, but a chance that those who see no way for the Democrats to win in the general election without the backing of moderates could start leaving the party altogether.

“If the warrant is dismissed and Lee returns, [the party] will head into an endless struggle, and there are bound to be people in the non-Lee faction who are chased off in a witch hunt,” commented a lawmaker who belongs to the non-Lee faction.

“That’s when a third party is born,” they said, implying a splintering of the Democratic Party.

The ruling People Power Party is also anxiously awaiting the outcome of the review of the arrest warrant. If the warrant is dismissed, the Yoon administration could face blowback for cracking down on the opposition by pressing hard for probes, which would be bad news for the ruling party.

On the other hand, while the ruling party may see some short-term benefits from infighting among Democrats if Lee is arrested, it’s possible that the development could do the People Power Party more harm than good if the top opposition party were to reinvent itself with new leadership.

“If the warrant for Lee’s arrest is dismissed, there will be all sorts of arguments that the ruling party should bear responsibility, including attacks claiming that prosecutors’ investigation was wrong from the get-go. So even if the warrant is issued, it won’t only be good news for us,” said a People Power Party lawmaker from the country’s southeast region.

“If anything, it’d be better for us if the Democratic Party keeps Lee and all his liabilities on board through the general election,” the lawmaker added.

“It may be a different story if Lee continues to demonstrate leadership of the party even after the warrant is issued, which could lead to infighting among Democrats,” commented one first-term lawmaker, “but if the internal conflict is resolved in one way or another, it won’t be in our favor.”

By Um Ji-won, staff reporter; Son Hyun-soo, staff reporter

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

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