The beginning of a real battle
The author is a political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
After former Democratic Party (DP) presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung won a legislative seat representing a district in Incheon in a by-election on June 1, even while the DP suffered a crushing defeat in the local elections held on the same day, many joked it was “Saving Private Lee.” During the local elections, Lee also served as chair of the DP’s campaign. DP lawmakers who are not members of Lee’s faction attacked him fiercely.
“He survived but the party died,” fumed Park Jie-won, former head of the National Intelligence Service, on the day of the elections. Four-term lawmaker Hong Young-pyo, expected to run for the party’s chairmanship in the national convention slated for August, said, “It was a disastrous defeat of the politics that privatized the party with instigation for his personal greed.” Rep. Lee Won-wook, who headed the strategic nomination committee of the party, joined the chorus by saying he’s willing to become a “sniper inside the party if necessary.”
Despite DP members holding Lee accountable for the overwhelming defeat in the local elections, Lee is acting as if nothing has happened. In fact, he has never cared about many controversies in the past, including his curse words towards his sister-in-law, an alleged affair with an actress, suspicions surrounding the Daejang-dong land development project when he was Seongnam mayor, and his wife’s suspected use of his corporate credit card for personal purposes. Lee probably expected criticism when he decided to run in the by-election. The DP members now accept the prospect that Lee will run for the party chairmanship two months later.
First, Lee has no rival in the DP, which holds 169 seats in the 300-member legislature. As of now, the pro-Moon Jae-in faction largely outnumber the Lee faction, as most of the party’s lawmakers were nominated for the legislative elections two years ago. However, many joined the Lee faction throughout the March 9 presidential campaign. In particular, hardline first-term lawmakers are voluntarily shielding Lee. They are trying to overcome the disadvantage in numbers with organizational power.
Most of all, there seems to be no strong rival to Lee. Reps. Hong Young-pyo and Jeon Hae-cheol are possible candidates from the Moon faction who would compete against Lee, but they are not popular faces to the public. Former Chairman Lee Nak-yon will leave for the United States. Some said former Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, a relatively neutral politician, should be the chairman, but it remains unclear if the idea will actually gain traction.
Second, Lee needs a stronger shield. “It is unprecedented in Korea for a politician to lose the presidential election yet run for a legislative seat in a new district in a month,” said Rep. Kim Jong-min, a Moon loyalist. Above all, there has never been a presidential candidate with four criminal records. The DP once touted the “unrivaled competitiveness of Lee that goes beyond common sense.” But Lee will certainly face criminal investigations. The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office is looking into the land development accusation, while the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office is probing an allegation that a private company had unlawfully paid Lee’s lawyer retainer fee over a case involving his election law violation charge.
The Bundang Police are investigating an allegation that Lee received illegal political funds when he was Seongnam mayor and disguised the money as contributions for the city’s soccer team. Gyeonggi Nambu Police Agency is examining allegations that his wife abused Lee’s corporate credit cards for personal expenses. Such allegations are too serious for Lee to resort to the privilege of exemption from arrest as a lawmaker. Lee is in a position to demand protection from the prosecution’s investigations against a party leader.
Third, Lee knows the power of his supporters. DP members have become powerful enough to shake the leadership of the liberal party. In the past, lawmakers loyal to President Moon encouraged their supporters to attack his rivals under the slogan of “direct democracy.” But the pro-Moon lawmakers suffer from the similar attacks from Lee supporters, known as “daughters of reform.”
Lee is now trying to boost the power of the “daughters of reform.” As the number of supporters grew after his narrow defeat in the presidential election, Lee wants to ease the qualification for them to become higher-tier party members with voting rights in party conventions. Currently, a member must wait six months before earning the right to cast vote in a party election, but he wants to cut it to three months to help reflect his new support basis to win the August chairmanship election.
It took four years for the People Power Party (PPP) to cut its ties with Park Geun-hye loyalists after she was impeached in 2017. The turning point came when the PPP suffered a crushing defeat in the parliamentary elections in 2020. The party was able to cut ties with the militant Taegukgi troops loyal to the former president. The PPP could change only after it hit rock bottom.
The DP has not hit rock bottom yet.