Hong survives leadership challenge with mandate to reform

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Hong survives leadership challenge with mandate to reform

Representative Hong Joon-pyo, chairman of the battered Grand National Party, will remain at the helm of the governing party, surviving internal pressure to step aside for Representative Park Geun-hye, the former party chairwoman and a leading presidential candidate, to take over ahead of next year’s elections.

The decision, made by GNP lawmakers and party chapters, came at the end of nearly 10 hours of discussion Tuesday after Hong offered his resignation if party members so desired.

“I will do my best to reform the party to escape from the crisis quickly,” Hong said yesterday. “The clock is ticking, and there is no time for us to argue with each other.”

Hong now has the mandate to push ahead with substantive policy reforms to remake the center-right party to win back voters who have increasingly become disillusioned with the Lee Myung-bak administration and are threatening to ditch en masse for a liberal alternative next year.

Key to the GNP’s reform efforts will be rolling out working-class friendly policies ahead of the election season - a signature issue for Park - to distance the GNP from its image as the party for the wealthy and to reflect growing public demands for expanded welfare programs.

Plans for increasing funding for welfare programs possibly include adopting Park’s policy proposals, such as subsidies for job search programs, an increase in university financial aid and an expansion of social safety net programs for those with low incomes.

The GNP chairman had received calls for his resignation after the party’s crushing defeat in October’s Seoul mayoral by-election, with some GNP lawmakers demanding fresh faces to lead the ruling but ailing party.

But the GNP’s decision Tuesday to stick with Hong and forgo what would have effectively been more window dressing than a substantive shift in direction appeared to signal its desire to shield Park from premature public scrutiny as she gears up for a Blue House run and an acknowledgement that new leadership would be no guarantee of better electoral prospects.

Hong had made a political gamble at the start of Tuesday’s meeting of 217 lawmakers and party chapter heads, telling them that he was willing to step down.

“If most of you agree that Park should become the party chairwoman and lead the reform and legislative election strategy, I will step down,” he said, adding that he would also be willing to revise the party constitution, which bars prospective presidential candidates from heading the party, to allow Park to run for the Blue House.

Hong then left the meeting to allow participants to discuss his fate before members agreed to stick with the current leadership roster.

Conspicuously absent from the meeting was Park herself, though senior GNP officials told the JoongAng Ilbo that Park loyalists had informed Hong beforehand that they wanted him to stay.

At the meeting, Park loyalists said that the GNP should focus on presenting attractive policies to working-class voters rather than simply replacing the old guard with new faces. They also cited the now-defunct Uri Party, the Democratic Party’s predecessor, which splintered and crumbled despite repeatedly changing its leadership.

Demands for Hong’s resignation and a bigger role for Park, however, persisted.

“Park is a politician with power, and she should also take responsibility,” Representative Chung Mong-joon, a former GNP chairman, said. “She shouldn’t just stand with folded arms and watch the GNP’s crisis as if it were not her problem.”

Representative Kwon Young-se, a three-term lawmaker, said calls for Hong’s resignation did not stem from poor performance but from the need for Park and other Blue House hopefuls to work more prominently for the upcoming elections.

Park loyalists, however, were adamant that there was no need for her to take unnecessary risks. “Those who are asking her to be in charge of the legislative elections are engaging in a political game,” said Representative Lee Jung-hyun, Park’s spokesman.

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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