Lee Jae-myung’s rising status as a presidential contender

Posted on : 2020-07-21 17:37 KST Modified on : 2020-07-21 17:37 KST
The Gyeonggi governor outspokenly expresses views on Seoul and Busan by-elections
Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung in front of Suwon High Court on July 10. (Yonhap News)
Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung in front of Suwon High Court on July 10. (Yonhap News)

After narrowly escaping a Supreme Court ruling against him on July 16, Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung has been speaking out candidly on sensitive issues, including the withholding of nominees for the mayoral races in Seoul and Busan in next year’s Apr. 7 by-elections. Having reduced the risk of losing his governorship, Lee is establishing himself as a ruling party contender for the next presidential election -- regaining his image of outspokenness on contentious issues, which has earned him the nickname of “Cider” after a popular soft drink.

Results released on July 20 from an opinion poll on potential presidential candidates showed him moving to within the margin of error behind Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Nak-yeon, who had previously been alone in first place. The trend suggests a race is taking place between two ruling party heavyweights.

Appearing on the CBS Radio program “Kim Hyeon-jeong’s News Show” on the morning of July 20, Lee commented on the nominations for the Seoul and Busan mayoral races in next year’s by-election.

“Merchants will sometimes accept losses to maintain trust,” he observed.

“Didn’t we [the Democratic Party] write in our regulations that we wouldn’t field nominees in this sort of situation involving serious corruption allegations?” he asked.

“Even if it’s really painful and causes major losses, I still think the right thing is to honor that basic promise. I think not having nominees would be the right thing,” he stressed.

He went on to say, “If it’s a situation where we simply can’t accept it politically, then I think the party needs to prostrate itself in apology before the public.” With the outcome of next year’s by-elections seen as a highly sensitive matter that could influence the future presidential race, the Democratic Party has been noticeably holding back on pronouncements over the nomination issue. With his remarks, Lee took the first step in opening that “Pandora’s box.”

Lee has been outspoken with his comments ever since the Supreme Court ruling. He has not shied away from taking on the administration either, insisting on July 17 that “we shouldn’t be going after taxes just because housing prices have risen” and declaring on July 19 that the lifting of greenbelt designations “needs to be reconsidered” and that “urban redevelopment volumes need to be increased.” In interviews with the press, he has characterized Lee Nak-yeon as part of the “elite” and emphasizing the distinction from himself as a “dirt spoon” who started out as a young laborer.

The immediate response from the public has been favorable. In a July 17 presidential preference survey of 1,000 South Koreans nationwide commissioned by YTN (95% confidence level, margin of error ±3.1 percentage points), Lee was named by 18.7% of respondents, putting him within the margin of error from the first time from Lee Nak-yeon (23.3%), who has been the favorite for over a year. The race was especially tight among respondents identifying themselves as progressive, with Lee Jae-myung drawing 32.9% of supporters to Lee Nak-yeon’s 33.4%.

Commenting on Lee’s recent actions, Zeitgeist Institute Director Eom Kyeong-young said, “On the issue of not having a Seoul mayor nominee in particular, he boldly stated a position that differs from the general view within the party that there needs to be a by-election nominee.”

“His aim seems to be strengthening his own position by distinguishing himself from the mainstream and prevailing trends,” Eom suggested.

“The fact that the presidential preference survey has come down to within the margin of error should be seen as a signal that Lee Nak-yeon’s dominance has weakened, but it doesn’t appear likely to spell any major changes to the convention’s battle for party dominance,” he added.

By Jung Hwan-bong, staff reporter

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

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