Honam dominates political field

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Honam dominates political field

A new golden age for politicians from the southwestern Honam region started this week as the conservative ruling Saenuri Party elected Rep. Lee Jung-hyun as its new chairman. The heads of the three largest political parties, as well as the National Assembly, are now lead by politicians from Honam.

Lee, a three-term lawmaker representing Suncheon, South Jeolla, won the race on Tuesday, becoming the first Honam politician to head the conservative party, which has been dominated by figures from the rival Yeongnam region. The regional rivalry between Honam and Yeongnam has long defined Korean politics.

Yeongnam refers to the region that coincides with the former Gyeongsang provinces, which includes modern-day North and South Gyeongsang as well as Busan, Daegu and Ulsan. Honam refers to the former Jeolla provinces and is now comprised of South and North Jeolla provinces and Gwangju.

Lee is from a rural town in Gokseong, South Jeolla. Rep. Park Jie-won, floor leader and acting head of the opposition People’s Party, is from Jindo in South Jeolla.

Rep. Kim Chong-in, acting chairman of the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, is from Seoul, but his family is from Sunchang, North Jeolla. He also spent his childhood and teenage years in Gwangju. National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun is also from Jinan, North Jeolla and two deputy speakers from the Saenuri Party and People’s Party are also from Honam. Saenuri Rep. Shim Jae-chul is from Gwangju and People’s Party Rep. Park Joo-sun is from Boseong, South Jeolla.

As the leaders of the ruling and opposition parties and the National Assembly are all politicians from Honam, observers said a new gold age has kicked off for the Honam politicians since the Kim Dae-jung administration’s launch in 1998. The late president was from Sinan, South Jeolla.

The changed political climate since the April 13 general election promoted the Honam politicians’ dominance in the National Assembly, observers said.

The Saenuri Party, which enjoyed a majority over the past four years, only won 122 out of the 300 seats in the legislature in the April general election. It not only lost the majority but was also reduced to being the second largest party, as the Minjoo Party won 123 seats. Furthermore, the People’s Party won 38 seats, largely from the Honam region.

In this three-party system, the Minjoo Party was to produce the National Assembly speaker while the deputy speakers were to be filled by the Saenuri Party and People’s Party. Honam politicians were already major players in the two liberal opposition parties, and in the Saenuri Party’s primary to elect a deputy speaker, Rep. Shim from Gwangju managed to beat Rep. Kim Jung-hoon from Busan.

While it was no surprise for opposition parties to produce heads from the Honam region, Rep. Lee’s victory in the chairmanship race for the conservative ruling party was widely considered extraordinary. The Saenuri Party has long been controlled by Yeongnam. Of the permanent members who paid membership fees for more than six months, 49.62 percent, or 142,979 of them, are from Yeongnam.

This regionalism-ridden structure was considered as an obstacle for Lee in the chairmanship race, but the general election defeat apparently fueled supporters’ frustration that it must elect a different face for the next presidential election. “Everything in the Saenuri Party was leaning toward Yeongnam, and the people and the party members elected Lee as the new chairman to normalize this abnormality,” Rep. Chung Woon-chun, who won the general election in Jeonju, North Jeolla.

Busan and South Gyeongsang politicians were also nowhere to be seen in the new Saenuri leadership. The party elected its new Supreme Council members on Tuesday, in addition to the chairmanship race. Rep. Cho Won-jin from Daegu and Rep. Kang Seok-ho from North Gyeongsang were elected to the council. Rep. Choi Yeon-hye is from North Chungcheong and Rep. Lee Jang-woo is from South Chungcheong.

Rep. Chung Jin-suk, floor leader, is from South Chungcheong and Rep. Kim Gwang-lim, chief policymaker, is from North Gyeongsang. Yoo Chang-soo, the newly elected Supreme Council member to represent younger voters, is the only one from Seoul.

“There have been rumors that the party will try to promote [UN Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon as presidential candidate,” said a Saenuri official. “If that attempt is made, loyalists of President Park Geun-hye will seek to form a political alliance between Chungcheong and Daegu-North Gyeongsang regions. The current disposition of the leadership resembles that scenario.”

BY SER MYO-JA, PARK YU-MI [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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