Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung has managed to clinch the ruling party’s presidential nomination amid a ballooning corruption scandal surrounding a real estate development project he oversaw when he served as mayor of a satellite city of Seoul.
On Sunday, the 56-year-old governor, known for his aggressive character and populist streak, became the candidate of the Democratic Party of Korea for the presidential election in March by narrowly securing a majority of the votes cast in the course of the party’s primaries since early September.
His win, however, was shaded by rising public anger at the land development scandal, which was apparently reflected in the third and last round of voting by rank-and-file party members and ordinary citizens registered to cast their ballots in the primary.
The governor garnered only 28.3 percent of the votes, as compared with the 62.3 percent for former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, the runner-up in the race.
He was on the way to securing well above the majority of the total votes needed to avoid a runoff. But the poor performance in the last round of voting, which came after a close aide to the governor was arrested in connection with the property development scandal, made him barely pass the threshold by less than 0.3 percentage point. He gained 50.29 percent of all votes cast in the primary against the 39.14 percent garnered by Lee Nak-yon.
Hours after the governor’s nomination as the liberal ruling party’s presidential candidate, the former prime minister’s camp said it would appeal the results of the primary, arguing that ballots thrown in support of two contenders who dropped out of the primary race should have counted into the final tally. The increase in the number of counted votes would reduce the governor’s share of total votes to slightly below 50 percent, forcing a runoff with Lee Nak-yon.
Rep. Song Young-gil, chairman of the ruling party, Monday dismissed the possibility of the runner-up’s appeal being accepted, noting that the party’s electoral rules stipulate votes cast for dropouts from the primary race be nullified. The rejection of the appeal could result in the former prime minister and his supporters refusing to stand behind their party’s standard-bearer, complicating the governor’s contest against the conservative main opposition party’s presidential runner, who will be selected early next month.
In his address accepting the ruling party’s presidential nomination, Lee Jae-myung sought to define the upcoming election as the “ultimate battle against the corrupt establishment.”
He pledged to carry out strong real estate market reforms and efforts to eradicate corruption while reaffirming his intention to introduce universal basic income and other sweeping welfare programs.
His chance of winning the next presidential vote will hinge significantly on whether or, in more realistic terms, to what extent he can insulate himself from the fallout of the property development scandal. A failure to do so could derail his tenacious bid for the country’s highest elected post.
The main opposition People Power Party has accused him of masterminding the scheme, in which a dubious asset management firm and its seven affiliates reaped huge profits from a property development project in Seongnam after being preferentially selected as a civilian partner with a municipal corporation in 2015. It has called for an independent counsel investigation into the scandal.
The governor has categorically dismissed all allegations against him as “fake news.” But his flip-flopped remarks and objection to a special prosecutor’s probe has heightened public suspicion of his implication.
This increasingly negative sentiment has been reflected in recent opinion polls that show a majority of respondents want to see a change of government through the upcoming presidential election.
What is notable is that the governor’s approval rating remains ahead of those for the two leading presidential contenders of the opposition party in hypothetical two-way match-ups, though the gap is narrowing.
This seemingly contradictory voter sentiment should remind the opposition presidential runners that they should go beyond attacking Lee Jae-myung over the scandal and suggest concrete visions and policies to carry forward the nation in contrast to the governor’s populist approach.