Political merger a strong Saenuri foe

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Political merger a strong Saenuri foe

The merger between the Democratic Party and a faction of supporters of independent lawmaker Ahn Cheol-soo, who promoted a “new political vision,” has created a formidable opposition force to rival the ruling Saenuri Party in the upcoming local elections.

The move has prompted the ruling party, which had been anticipating a relatively easy victory in the June 4 local elections given the ever-lower popularity of the Democrats, to amend its strategy, selecting and encouraging senior lawmakers and political heavyweights to make bids for the mayoral and gubernatorial seats in major cities, including Seoul and Gyeonggi.

Such a scheme, according to analysts, could actually affect the upcoming presidential elections.

The Seoul mayoral seat remains the most closely watched post. Even though Saenuri lawmaker Chung Mong-joon pledged when he announced his run to “finish my term should I become the mayor of Seoul,” many observers believe his real aim is to make it to the Blue House and suspect he may renege on that promise and step down when or if the time comes. (Former President Lee Myung-bak, for instance, was also criticized for running for president while serving as Seoul mayor.)

The seven-term lawmaker is highly likely to emerge as the No. 1 presidential candidate within the party, should he be elected mayor.

A win for former Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik, another Seoul mayoral candidate from the Saenuri Party, however, may have a stronger ripple effect. In the event that he gains the party’s nomination over Chung to become the Saenuri’s Seoul mayoral candidate and is elected, it could turn him into a dark horse within the party in terms of the 2017 presidential election.

“Kim will have a destructive power given he was the longest-serving prime minister and is from Jeolla Province, the stronghold of the Democrats,” said one politician.

For Saenuri senior lawmaker Kim Moo-sung, the local elections will be critical.

Having built a name for himself within the ruling party, he is currently considered a strong presidential candidate. “If we lose in the local elections, the entire party would crumble. I will do my best for victory,” he said.

The situation within the new opposition party is similar, and local election results will likely transform the power dynamic between Representative Ahn Cheol-soo and Representative Moon Jae-in, who were formerly political partners.

Representative Ahn launched a bid for the presidency as an independent candidate in September 2012, though he gave up his bid just a month before the presidential election in December, hoping it would help Moon, then the Democratic Party candidate, win against Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri.

Representative Moon has already mentioned his intention to run again for the presidency in 2017, whereas Representative Ahn has yet to clarify his plan.

“Representatives Moon and Ahn are expected to raise pitches on their own ahead of the local elections to help out the new party,” said political critic Yoo Chang-sun.

If the election results turn out to be good for the DP, Ahn’s contribution will stand out, he added.

But the scenario in which the party’s victory is indebted to Representative Moon is expected to place both lawmakers in an equally strong position.

If incumbent Mayor Park Won-soon is re-elected, his chances of becoming a presidential candidate will only increase, analysts say.

“Regardless of whether they intend it or not, Representative Ahn and Mayor Park will be in a delicate competition for the presidency,” said a DP lawmaker.

“It will be reminiscent of the situation in the Saenuri before 2006, when former President Lee Myung-bak was Seoul mayor and Park Geun-hye, who was then a lawmaker, held power in the party.”

BY PARK SUNG-WOO, SEO JI-EUN [spring@joongang.co.kr]

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