Can the Democratic Party’s Lee Nak-yon make a comeback?

Posted on : 2021-01-31 11:14 KST Modified on : 2021-01-31 11:14 KST
The ruling party leader’s push for presidential pardons has made him lag behind Lee Jae-myung in public support
Democratic Party leader Lee Nak-yon meets with other lawmakers at the National Assembly on Jan. 22. (photo pool)
Democratic Party leader Lee Nak-yon meets with other lawmakers at the National Assembly on Jan. 22. (photo pool)

Host: “Would you say you did yourself a disservice politically with your pardon proposal?”

Democratic Party leader Lee Nak-yon: “I certainly did get it with both barrels. I’m hoping that what our president said will put an end to it. That’s the right approach in my view.”

In a Jan. 19 appearance on the MBC program “News Desk,” Lee Nak-yon prostrated himself in apology for floating the idea of pardoning former Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geu-hye. In the space of less than a month, he had retracted the message that he had ambitiously shared on Jan. 1 as his first talking point of the New Year.

A Gallup Korea poll on preferences for future political leaders conducted between Jan. 12 and 14 showed Lee at 10%, down six percentage points from the month before (95% confidence level, margin of error ±3.1 percentage points). Ever since being passed by Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung in Gallup polls announced on Aug. 14 of last year, he’s been on a steady slide. At 23%, Lee Jae-myung now has more than double Lee Nak-yon’s support. The drop has been especially precipitous since the pardon proposal.

“His support ratings have fallen through the floor since the pardon proposal,” a Democratic Party insider said. “He’d been in firm position as the successor to Moon Jae-in, and now he’s lost that advantage. Supporters are now questioning whether Lee Nak-yon really is going to carry on Moon Jae-in’s mantle. That’s the gist of the crisis.”

Fighting polarization

Bruised and battered in the wake of his pardon proposal, Lee is now attempting to regroup by going all in on relieving “COVID-19 polarization.” On Jan. 11, he delivered a message that stressed the severity of polarization while landing a jab at the administration and party’s blunders.

“This is the age of COVID-19 polarization. It’s ‘K-shaped polarization,’ where the high earners’ incomes are rising and the low earners’ incomes are falling,” he said. He also shared a new proposal for “sharing profits.”

Since then, he has raised the topic of fighting polarization wherever he goes. It’s been the focus of his message while visiting the new port in Incheon to check up on exports (“We’re going to need a certain amount of growth to overcome COVID-19 polarization, and we have the kind of structure where we inevitably need a contribution from exports for growth”) or while attending the first meeting of the Democratic Party’s nomination committee to nominate candidates for the April by-elections (“The candidates are going need to have answers as to how we can relieve and overcome COVID-19 inequality”). His approach has read as a plea to forget about the pardon stuff — positioning himself as a candidate who suits the party’s identity and will carry on from the Moon administration.

The party’s most devoted members still appear to favor Lee Nak-yon over Lee Jae-myung. On a Democratic Party website bulletin board for members with voting rights, voting has been under way since Jan. 6 on whether Lee Nak-yon should step down as party leader and whether Lee Jae-myung should be kicked out of the party. As of Jan. 21, votes for Lee Nak-yon’s departure totaled 3,466 in favor to 6,851 against; for Lee Jae-myung’s expulsion, it was 6,703 in favor to 377 against. At least on the party members’ bulletin board, Lee Nak-yon is still the favorite.

A member of Lee Nak-yon’s camp explained, “Among the die-hard party members, the attitude is, ‘Lee Jae-myung is still the worst.’ They’re asking for a reason to support Lee Nak-yon. If he focuses on reform measures that suit the Democratic Party’s identity — namely responding to COVID-19 polarization — his support will bounce back. There’s no need to go overboard.”

Lee was thrown into an impossible game

The period between Lee’s ascent to become party leader and the end of last year was a time for him to do his homework as a politician. As the first prime minister in the Moon presidency and the leader of a ruling party with nearly 180 National Assembly seats, it was always in the cards that he would end up legislating the Moon administration’s reform efforts. The problem is that this truly was “homework,” in the sense that he had nothing to gain from doing well and stood to take the blame for doing poorly. It’s the kind of frame where it is impossible to win points, while the risks of losing them are rife.

In the event, Lee didn’t do the best of jobs. By the time it was passed, legislation for a “fair economy” and the punishment of companies responsible for major disasters was seen by critics as having precious little substance left. Many accused Lee of failing to assert himself amid the wrangling over other sensitive pieces of legislation. His support ratings continued to plummet during this “learning curve.”

Eventually, that curve came to an end, and his time as a politician began. On Feb. 2, he is scheduled to deliver his second speech as a representative of an interest group since taking over as party leader. If his speech in September 2020 marked his debut as party representative, then the next one will be his first as a prospective presidential candidate. He appears likely to articulate his vision for overcoming COVID-19 polarization, with a focus on the “new welfare system” approach he has been working on. It’s his third political salvo, following his proposals for pardoning former presidents and establishing a profit-sharing system. A month after his speech, his brief term as party leader will come to an end. A month after that, there will be the by-elections for the mayoral seats in Seoul and Busan, followed by the Democratic Party’s presidential race. The main match is set to begin. Can Lee Nak-yon make a comeback? He does have time — but time has a way of passing very quickly.

By Kim Won-chul, staff reporter

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