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Gyeonggi gov. rises as contender for ruling party presidential candidacy

Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung. (Yonhap)
Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung. (Yonhap)

Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung is rapidly rising as a potential presidential contender for the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, buoyed by his actions in the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent Supreme Court ruling that effectively acquit him on a charge that could have crippled his career.

According to Gallup Korea surveys, support for Lee as a potential future president has grown rapidly in recent months.

In a survey conducted in the second week of January, Lee ranked fourth among potential presidential candidates, with 3 percent support. In the latest survey conducted in the second week of July, Lee’s support had risen to 13 percent, putting him in second only to former Prime Minister Rep. Lee Nak-yon.

Much of the increase has been attributed to Lee’s actions in fighting the social and economic issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. When Christianity-based religious group Shincheonji was at the focus of public attention over its role in COVID-19’s spread in Daegu, Lee had the group’s facilities in his province raided to secure a list of facilities and followers.

Lee also took the lead in sparking discussions on basic income and emergency subsidies, which have been credited with temporarily softening the blow to local economies.

Aided in part by the success of such actions, the Gyeonggi Province governor appears to be taking bolder steps.

On Monday, Lee proposed “basic housing” for residents of the province.

The plan proposes setting aside more than half of new homes that will be built in new urban development projects within the province as long-term rental properties. Properties designated as such will be rented to the province’s residents who do not own residential properties for up to 30 years.

Lee has also spoken out on the sensitive issue of the Democratic Party fielding candidates in the Seoul and Busan by-elections. Both posts were previously held by Democratic Party figures, and both are now vacant following allegations of sexual misconduct, including the suicide of former Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.

While denying reports that he claimed the Democratic Party should not nominate candidates for the by-elections, Lee called for political parties and politicians to maintain their integrity, citing the party’s regulations that state the party will not field a candidate in by-elections that are results of the “grievous fault” of its members.

“The promise made to the people, particularly a promise that is stipulated in the party regulations of the ruling party, must be kept,” Lee wrote on his Facebook account Wednesday.

However, he added that as politics is an “organism and reality,” unrealistic promises should be broken, but at the same time the party must take responsibility for its actions.

Lee has also been marked by a number of unusual developments in his relatively short political career. Lee’s career in politics began in earnest in 2010 as mayor of Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province.

His time as Seongnam mayor was marked by scandals, including one involving an actress and revelations of fraught relations with family, which led to a drawn-out court case that continues now.

Lee, however, has been effectively cleared to continue in his post with the Supreme Court rejecting a lower court’s finding that Lee was guilty of spreading falsehoods by denying his involvement in his elder brother being institutionalized in the runup to local elections in 2018.

In addition to the scandals, Lee stands out from other heavyweights in his lack of connection to factions -- something long considered key to a politician gaining clout.

Lee is a relative outsider within the ruling Democratic Party, not counted as a core member of such factions like those that group politicians with close ties with late presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun or with President Moon Jae-in.

By Choi He-suk (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)
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