Decline of pro-Moon forcesThe victory of Rep. Lee In-young in the Democratic Party (DP)’s race to pick a new floor leader for the ruling party was big a surprise after he defeated Kim Tae-nyeon, a close aide to President Moon Jae-in. Many people expected an easy win for Kim, who had been Moon’s policymaker in his transition team and remains a key confidant to the president. He is also influential in the DP as he served as head of the policy committee under party leader Lee Hae-chan. Yet he lost to Lee by a big margin — 76 versus 49 — in a vote ahead of the day President Moon celebrated his second year in office. Lee, a student activist who was recruited into politics by former President Kim Dae-jung in 2000, has kept a distance from the pro-Moon forces.
The pick of Lee over a Moon loyalist could suggest a subtle change in the ruling party. There could be a shared feeling among party members that they may not have a chance of winning in the general elections next spring. In a speech ahead of the final vote, Kim mainly touted Moon and the Blue House’s feats over the past two years. But Lee highlighted the challenges the party faces. He promised to turn attention to the economy as he could not be sure of the ruling party’s win when he visited shops on the street.
The honest and self-reflective words from a ruling party member have drawn sympathy from his peers. A JoongAng Ilbo poll showed Moon retaining a 52.3 percent approval rating on his general performance of the past two years. On the evaluation of his economic policy, however, negative responses overwhelmed at 54.6 percent against 43.4 percent. The failure of his economic policy is the ruling party’s Achilles’ heel.
The latest vote also implies growing disgruntlement in party leadership. DP head Lee Hae-chan has been overly optimistic about the future of the ruling party, even speaking of dominating for the next 20 years. Recently, he expressed confidence in winning 260 seats in the 300-seat legislature in next year’s election. Where his confidence comes from is bewildering. The party has done little when the Blue House repeatedly named unfit candidates for senior government positions and pushed ahead with minimum wage hikes despite the toll on merchants and the self-employed.
The ruling party has to assist the president’s governance, yet it must not blindly follow his orders. A party member said his peers may have thrown the vote to Lee In-young because they were unhappy with Lee Hae-chan’s leadership. It is uncertain how the new floor leader will reflect the underlying mood of the ruling party. The party’s future is uncertain if it is afraid to change.