A dark horse for the conservatives

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A dark horse for the conservatives

 Lee Chul ho
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.


A campaign cyclone developed into a killer typhoon for Lee Jun-seok on the primary campaign trail in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, nicknamed TK in Korea, as he ran to become leader of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP). Speaking about Lee topping polls among PPP primary candidates, pro-government comedian Kang Sung-beom on his YouTube channel mentioned how Lee explained his parents were from Daegu when there was a rumor about them being ethnic Chinese. “Personally, I prefer ethnic Chinese,” Kang added, stirring an uproar over his disparaging comments about Daegu people. But Kang’s controversial comments ended up helping Lee in the traditional stronghold for the conservatives. People in the region began to open up to the 36-year-old unseasoned politician for his roots in Daegu.

The conservatives in TK are turning to the political rookie ahead of the next presidential election on March 9, 2022. They rallied against the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, but were humbled by a string of crushing defeats in elections. Upon coming in first in the preliminary primary race, Lee said that the results reflected “public aspirations for political change and longing by party members to win the next presidential election.” Yoo In-tae, a former multi-term lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party, said, “Lee usually spoke with reason when he appeared in the media, which has led to his popularity. The sensation Lee’s creating is stoking worries in the DP about losing the next presidential election.”

In campaigning in Daegu on June 3, Lee confidently declared Park’s impeachment had been just after reading the changing mood in the hometown — the base of the disgraced former president. He was clever to add, “The legal grounds for her impeachment also should be applied to the Moon Jae-in administration.” Lee urged the people of Daegu and North Gyeongsang to recognize the justice in her impeachment so that former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl won’t be hurt for his contribution to the impeachment and can feel free to join a bigger camp. His argument to put the past behind the party for the sake of the future has helped remove a stumbling block to Yoon’s joining the conservative party and impressed centrists in the capital region.

Although his win in the primary was more or less decisive, Lee has not let down his guard against rivals Na Kyung-won and Joo Ho-young. That is a “shrewd move for his age,” a PPP official noted. “He needed not have to worry about handling lawmakers of the capital region because there are many centrists among them when he becomes the party head. But TK is different. The regional sentiment could support a traditionalist and shake a young leader. A sweeping win in TK for the primary is therefore important to lessen the burden for the young chairman,” he added.

Youthful politicians like Lee and Yoon Hee-sook have risen in the conservative party, while political rookies in the DP are stifled by die-hard supporters of President Moon Jae-in. Regardless of his win, Lee has contributed big by bringing such a spotlight to the conservative party’s contest to elect a new chief. Yoon has also gained attention for her pointed attack on Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung, the frontrunner among presidential aspirants from the ruling camp, based on fact and logic. Political debate has so far been entirely revolving around ideology-based reasoning and loyalty to a leader. But the reasoning of young bloods like Lee and Yoon is based on common sense and practical views. They represent the direction the conservatives should aim at.

The political landscape has become more unpredictable than ever. Disillusionment and rage against the liberal government’s impotence and stubborn ways have reached a boiling point. Public disgruntlement has gone viral through social media. It could explode with the right trigger. Oh Se-hoon defeated opponents one by one in the primary for the Seoul mayoral election just a month after the scandal with the Korea Land and Housing Corp. broke on March 2 and the resignation of Prosecutor General Yoon on March 4. The Lee Jun-seok phenomenon swept the country in less than two weeks.

One opposition lawmaker from South Gyeongsang said, “Lee is uncomfortable among political veterans because of his honesty and rudeness. But the mood in constituencies is different. They regard him to be straight-forward. Even if his personality is doubtful, many are excited about the changes he could bring.”

Politics can draw a lesson from music. Arnold Schoenberg one day presented an unorthodox musical composition to his teacher, the great composer Gustave Mahler. His unfamiliar work was utterly shunned by the public and his performance was rejected. But Mahler came to his defense. “He is young, and perhaps he is right. Maybe my ear is not sensitive enough,” said Mahler. Schoenberg has come to be called the father of modern classical music. Lee could bring about a shockwave. Mahler’s wisdom should be borrowed.
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