Is a comeback possible for Lee Jun-seok?
The author is political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The low-key, feeble voice of Lee Jun-seok was a stark difference from the way he spoke before — making comments out of conviction in a swift and rigorous manner. In a telephone conversation with a person on the other end, the former chairman of the governing People Power Party (PPP) repeated “Yes” dubiously and asked him if he could meet someone Lee would send later. That was a part of the shady dialogue Lee had with the man on the late evening of December 27, 2021. The conversation was disclosed after Lee had allegedly received sexual favors from a businessman in Daejeon nine years ago and tried to destroy the evidence.
Lee, a 37-year-old leader of the conservative party, showed an unusual side on another occasion. Before appearing before an ethics committee of the PPP on July 7, Lee began to make emotionally charged remarks with a fleeting sigh about the surreptitious cover-up last year. At 2:45 the following day, Lee was suspended from the party for six months by the ethics committee.
The steps he took after the suspension by the committee also defied conventional wisdom. After backing down on his earlier pledge to fight back — for instance, by requesting a reconsideration of the case by the ethics committee and petitioning for a preliminary injunction against the suspension from a court — Lee embarked on a crusade to draw new members to the party — mostly people in their 20s and 30s — by crisscrossing the country to meet with them after his shameful suspension. “Today is a good day for you to join our party,” he posts on social media frequently.
Probably thanks to his aggressive strategy, over 8,000 young people have requested meetings with Lee so far. In a chatroom called FMKorea — mostly consisting of male members of the young generation — people enthusiastically plea for a meeting with Lee. He seems to have succeeded in proving his raison d’être at the peak of a crisis. In a recent poll on the popularity of PPP heavyweights, Lee is comfortably leading the pack with an approval rating at 25.2 percent compared to his runner-up, Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo, at 18.3 percent. Noticeable is Lee’s 33.1 percent approval rating among respondents between the ages of 18 and 20.
What will be the future of the party after its consecutive victories in the March 9 presidential and the June 1 local elections? The PPP is sharply divided among factions bent on taking its helm. A power struggle could help deepen suspicions that the leadership wants to expel Lee, a former head with no experience as a lawmaker. Coupled with sharp schisms in the PPP, President Yoon Suk-yeol’s approval rating has plunged to the lower 30 percent range.
Can Lee make a comeback after six months? It largely depends on the results of the police’s ongoing investigation of the case involving Lee. If he is proven innocent, he could reassume the chairman post, reenergize the innovation committee he set up, and consolidate his power base. But if the suspicions prove true, Lee will face the worst crisis in his 10-year political life. Not to mention a disgraceful step-down as party head, the ethics committee will start to discuss additional punishments, which could expel him from the PPP once and for all.
Lee’s future will be affected by both opportunities and risks — like the proverbial double-edged sword. Systematic support from a young generation of men and new party members Lee is attracting will help him stay afloat. Rep. Kim Ki-hyun, a former floor leader of the PPP, was appreciative of Lee’s strategy of focusing on male voters in their 20s and 30s to help the PPP win the last presidential election
Despite Lee’s ingenious political skills primarily based on a strategy of divide and rule, fundamental questions linger about his political philosophy. Lee used a sly strategy of rekindling deep-rooted discontent among men in their 20s and 30s about their relative sense of deprivation from the growing feminist trend in our society. Lee has emerged as an icon of division — not integration — of the conservative party and the country, a critical flaw in a mature political leadership. If Lee fails to present a universal — and bold — vision beyond the confines of gender and generation, he will not succeed as a politician.
Appearing on a television program last week, Kim Chong-in, Lee’s political mentor and the former head of the emergency committee of the PPP, came up with some nuanced advice. “Lee faces a situation where he must rescue his own political life. The most important thing for him is what kind of political skills he will display in the future [as I taught him in the past].”