The Lee Jae-myung problem

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The Lee Jae-myung problem

Lee Hyun-sang
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Parents do not rush to railways to rescue their kids on the line — nor meerkats sound alarms against imminent predators — just because they have an especially high sense of morality. They risk their lives in an irrational way to transmit their genes to the next generation, according to the selfish-gene theory of natural selection by Richard Dawkins. In other words, only instinctive mechanisms to ensure genetic transmissions and expansion work here. That principle is not confined to the world of animals. Prioritizing the safety of a political entity over its members also reflects the strategy of sacrificing individual members of the party for its own sake to extend its political genes to the next generation.

Former Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung — who ran for a legislative seat representing a district in Incheon and won less than two months after his narrow defeat in the March 9 presidential election — constitutes a case that goes against the selfish-gene theory. The former presidential candidate from the Democratic Party (DP) faced criticism that he only ran for a seat in the National Assembly to avoid being arrested for his alleged abuse of power. In the process, Lee contributed to the DP’s crushing defeat in the June 1 local elections. Lee had to get support from party members rather than orchestrating the campaign — as if he follows in the footsteps of an ancient king who volunteered to lead his Army in a key battle against an enemy and became a nuisance.

The DP is a political party that takes pride in its “superb” genes, as perfectly exemplified by former Blue House spokesperson Kim Eui-kyeom’s self-justified description of the liberal party. “We do not have genes for spying on private citizens [as in the past conservative administrations],” he said. Without taking into account their unrivaled pride in “pure genes,” you can hardly explain their collective culture relying on a fandom nearly bordering on a religious faith, demonization of their enemies and the boldness to brush off sexual assault cases involving party members.

A case in point is Lee’s campaign promise to shut down Gimpo Airport and incorporate its functions into Incheon International Airport at the last minute of the local elections. After opponents attacked the proposal for causing inconvenience to a number of Gyeonggi residents when they travel to Jeju Island, Lee expounded on the arrival of an era for passenger aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities and the construction of an undersea tunnel linking the island. Lee’s fanciful ideas were in perfect concert with his earlier claim during the presidential campaign that the Korean won will soon become a key global currency.

The DP had a heated contest over who is the legitimate heir of the liberal party throughout the primary for the presidential election. Lee, a non-mainstream member of the DP, underwent vehement attacks from the mainstream faction who believe that they are the legitimate heir of the party. Even Lee defined himself as an “outsider.”

Nevertheless, he became the presidential candidate of the DP thanks mostly to his combative spirit, rough early life and ability to change like a chameleon. He paid a high cost, including the ridiculing of him as the so-called “livelihood-focused leftist,” not to mention a number of legal disputes and endless accusations against his personality. Coupled with the unique fandom politics, Lee’s heterogeneous genes helped evolve the DP into a bizarre establishment.

Lee’s election as a lawmaker in a by-election on June 1 fuels a complication for the DP. It may have been better if he had lost the election for the party to have some time for self-reflection. If the party’s razor-thin victory in the gubernatorial race is to serve as the last bastion for Lee’s political survival, it could trigger a bigger crisis. Kim Ou-joon, an outspoken liberal critic, already spiked the controversy. “The victory of the DP in Gyeonggi does not mean the entire defeat of the party,” he claimed. But if Lee’s colleagues in the legislature extend a helping hand to protect him against his arrest, it will surely provoke a strong backlash from the public.

The possibility of Lee trying to take the helm of the embattled party at the national convention in August looks slim. Lee would wait first until all the criticism for his gaining of a legislative seat in return for the DP’s overwhelming loss in the local elections subside. The time has come for the DP to decide whether it must thank Lee for this much of the party’s performance in elections or whether it suffered a crushing defeat because of Lee.

For the conservatives, opinions on Lee are much easier to determine. As far as they’re concerned, hopefully Lee remains a DP candidate for many elections to come.
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