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[News Focus] Daunting challenges await new ruling party chief Lee Nak-yon

Rep. Lee Nak-yon, chairman of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea. (Yonhap)
Rep. Lee Nak-yon, chairman of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea. (Yonhap)

Former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon’s victory as the new leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea paves the way for his bid in the 2022 presidential race, but daunting challenges await him as the country battles a resurgence of coronavirus infections and soaring housing prices.

Lee took the helm of the party in a landslide vote Saturday, claiming 60.77 percent of the votes, beating former Interior Minister Kim Boo-kyum and two-term lawmaker Rep. Park Ju-min, who won 21.37 percent and 17.85 percent, respectively.

His triumph was widely expected. The 67-year-old veteran politician, who served as the first prime minister of the Moon Jae-in administration, has established himself as a leading presidential candidate within the party, which controls a solid majority of 176 of the total 300 parliamentary seats.

During his acceptance speech, Lee said he takes on the post with a sense of “heavy responsibility,” mindful of the challenges in front of him as the government makes efforts to prevent a looming second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and soothe growing public anger at the governing liberals and the Moon administration over a series of policy failures intended to stabilize real estate market prices.

“The first goal is to eliminate nonsensical price increases (in real estate),” Lee said during an interview with local media outlets after being elected Saturday. “The housing sales market is on its way toward stabilization. As to the housing rental market, there will be some drawbacks due to major policy changes, but it will stabilize soon.”

He also stressed the need to form a public-private task force to discuss and evaluate mid- and long-term real estate policies.

Responding to criticism of the ruling party -- opponents say it railroaded controversial housing bills through the parliament despite a backlash -- Lee said the situation could not have been avoided. The changes offer tenants greater protection from landlords, and will mean heavier taxes for homebuyers and homeowners.

“If we had delayed passing these bills for the sake of discussing them more, the real estate market would have faced more and longer instability. So it was inevitable.”

Lee also vowed to make every effort to fight the coronavirus pandemic and overcome the economic fallout from the virus, in close cooperation with the government and public participation.

“If we don’t win this battle, we won’t be able to recover peace in everyday life,” he said during his acceptance speech delivered virtually from his home. “I will help (the country) deal with this crisis more efficiently and systematically.”

Lee had been placed under self-quarantine through the end of the month, as he came into indirect contact with a COVID-19 patient early last week, although he afterward tested negative.

The new chairman also vowed closer collaboration with opposition parties to tackle challenges.

Joo Ho-young, floor leader of the main opposition United Future Party, congratulated Lee on Sunday and called for cooperation between the two parties to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as other pending issues.

All eyes will be on Lee during his two-year term, which could be cut short if he decides to begin a campaign for president, assessing his resolve and his ability to handle a national crisis, as well as on key by-elections for mayors of Seoul and Busan slated for April next year, which could determine his chance to succeed President Moon in 2022.

Having started his career as a journalist at the DongA Ilbo in the 1980s, Lee entered politics in 2000 at the invitation of former President Kim Dae-jung, becoming a lawmaker representing Hampyeong and Yeonggwang counties in South Jeolla Province. He secured the parliamentary seat for four consecutive terms and was elected governor of South Jeolla Province in 2014.

In 2017, Moon appointed him as his first prime minister, a role he held for 31 months to become the longest-serving prime minister here until he resigned in January to run for a parliamentary seat. He won big against his main rival, Hwang Kyo-ahn of the UFP, in Seoul’s Jongno constituency in April.

For over a year, Lee led opinion polls among presidential hopefuls, though he lost that lead to Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung in the latest survey in August. Gov. Lee, who is a relative outsider within the ruling party, has recently risen as a potential presidential contender for the Democratic Party, buoyed by his aggressive action on COVID-19 as well as the social and economic fallout stemming from the pandemic.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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