President’s ally jumps into Seoul mayoral race

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President’s ally jumps into Seoul mayoral race

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Left to right: Lee Hye-hoon, Kim Hwang-sik, Ahn Dae-hee, Chung Mong-joon.

With six months until next year’s local elections, the race inside the ruling party for Seoul mayor has begun with an associate of President Park Geun-hye throwing her hat into the ring.

Lee Hye-hoon, a former two-term lawmaker and a member of the Saenuri Party’s Supreme Council, said in an interview with SBS Radio on Tuesday that she is positively considering running in the race.

“I have never avoided a job in which I’m needed by the party and the country, after calculating the chance of winning or guessing the relative advantages and disadvantages,” she said.

Lee is the first politician to make public a bid to challenge Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who declared his intention to run for re-election earlier this month. Local elections are scheduled for June 4, 2014.

“Park has his strengths in communicating with Seoul residents, but he has not done enough,” Lee told the JoongAng Ilbo. “He has abandoned the New Town development project for two years and a half, and Seoul’s economic vitality has been ruined. I became more and more motivated to run as I saw the situation deteriorate.”

Lee is a key associate of President Park Geun-hye. During the 2007 presidential primary, she served as Park’s spokeswoman. Recently, Lee worked on the Saenuri Party’s implementation of Park’s campaign promises for “economic democratization.”

The Seoul mayoral race is the most significant local election for major political parties, and finding the right candidate has emerged as one of the most important challenges of the Saenuri Party.

In an October 2011 by-election, it lost the mayoralty to Park Won-soon, then an independent candidate. Mayor Park joined the largest opposition Democratic Party in February 2012, shortly before legislative elections.

In opinion polls, the approval rating for the ruling party remains higher than for the DP. A Gallup Korea poll conducted during the second week of this month showed the Saenuri Party’s approval rating in Seoul was 39 percent, while the DP scored 25 percent.

“Park won the post as an independent, but things will be very different when he runs as a Democrat,” said a senior Saenuri official.

Speculation is growing that other political heavyweights will try to get the Saenuri nomination, including seven-term lawmaker Chung Mong-joon.

“Some say that the Saenuri Party will suffer a defeat in the Seoul mayoral race,” said Hong Moon-jong, Saenuri secretary-general, on Tuesday. “But that is a fiction. According to the political consulting company WinGKorea’s latest survey, Chung would beat Park if the voter turnout is lower than 56 percent.”

In the past, a higher turnout benefited liberal candidates. The turnout for the Seoul mayoral election in 2010 was 53.9 percent.

Chung associates earlier denied that the lawmaker and former presidential contender would run, but they recently changed their lines, saying he could review the possibility.

Saenuri insiders also talked about recruiting a new face from outside the party. Many think Kim Hwang-sik, a former prime minister, would make a great candidate. And, because he is from South Jeolla, he could steal some votes from the DP. The Jeolla region is the traditional stronghold of the Democrats. As speculation grew, Kim recently told journalists that he had not considered running. He did not rule out the possibility, however.

Others said Ahn Dae-hee, a former Supreme Court justice who led the Saenuri Party’s political reform initiative, could be a possible candidate. Ahn denied that he wanted to run.

The Saenuri Party also stepped up its offense against Seoul’s Mayor Park. At the National Assembly’s audit on the government over political affairs Tuesday, the ruling party raised an allegation that Park was giving special favors to some property owners as part of the city’s redevelopment plan for Guryong Village, a shantytown in southern Seoul.



BY SER MYO-JA [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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