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[Editorial] Messy contest

Political sideshow threatens to derail main opposition party leadership race

The leadership contest for the main opposition Liberty Korea Party is being rattled by two factors that have no direct bearing on how to choose the best person to steer the party through next year’s parliamentary elections.

Six of the eight candidates running for party chairman have threatened not to register their candidacy by the Tuesday deadline unless the election slated for Feb. 27 is postponed to mid-March.

They argue the delay is necessary to prevent the party’s convention to pick its new leader from being overshadowed by the second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which is set to take place Feb. 27-28 in Hanoi.

Though the demand to push back the election was prompted by the disclosure of the summit dates, it also reflects their wish to buy more time to catch up with former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is regarded as the front-runner in the conservative party’s leadership race.

The party’s electoral management body decided Friday to hold the election as scheduled, but with a few changes to the electoral rules, including more televised debates.

It cited difficulties in changing plans for the convention on short notice. But Hwang’s competitors have expressed suspicion that another motive was at play: to give the former prime minister an advantage.

If Hwang were to win an election under boycott by other contenders, it would damage his legitimacy as party leader. He has said he intends to follow the party’s decision about the date of the election. But he may have to walk back that statement and agree to postpone it, giving the party’s election managers an excuse to reverse their earlier decision and thus prevent the leadership contest from being derailed.

It should still be noted that it was inappropriate for the six contenders to demand the postponement of the election shortly after Trump’s State of the Union address last week, in which he announced the dates of his second summit with Kim. The national convention for the main opposition party carries its own weight, though media attention will inevitably be diverted to the big diplomatic event.

Hong Joon-pyo, a former party chairman who is running for the post again, went too far in suggesting that the scheduling of the US-North Korea summit on the same day as the party’s convention had been a “ploy by the Moon (Jae-in) administration to minimize its impact.”

Moreover, the leadership contest -- which could prove to be a crucial steppingstone for some contenders, including Hwang and Hong, to a presidential bid in 2022 -- suddenly came under the shadow of disgraced former President Park Geun-hye last week.

A lawyer for Park, who has been jailed since March 2017 for corruption and abuse of power, suggested that Park does not regard Hwang as quite the loyalist that many of her supporters believe he is. He quoted her as saying that her requests to have a chair and a desk placed in her cell had been repeatedly denied while Hwang was acting president after she was ousted from office by the Constitutional Court.

Those remarks have confused pro-Park lawmakers in the opposition party, who had rallied around Hwang.

According to the lawyer, the former president also spoke ill of Hong and another big-name candidate, former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon.

Park was seen as projecting her political influence from prison, with the contenders for the party leadership competing to win support from an important bloc of the electorate, voters who sympathize with the former president’s predicament. Speculation has emerged that Park would attempt to establish a new party and exercise her political capital once again if she were to be pardoned later this year.

But any such development would be unhelpful in building up a conservative force to serve as an effective check on President Moon’s government, which critics say is acting in an increasingly arbitrary manner.

As the government comes under increasing criticism for its misguided policies and a string of scandals involving Moon’s associates, a recent opinion poll showed the main opposition party narrowing the gap in voter support with the liberal ruling Democratic Party of Korea to within 10 percent for the first time since Moon took power.

But the way in which the party’s leadership contest has unfolded so far shows it still has a long way to go if it is to reinvent itself into a credible alternative. It needs to step out of Park’s shadow and put forward a more concrete and constructive vision for the nation if it wants to draw disenchanted voters back into its fold.