After rocky year as opposition leader, Lee confronts possibility of general election behind bars

Posted on : 2023-08-28 17:25 KST Modified on : 2023-08-28 17:25 KST
Some in Lee’s party have cooled to their leader amid what they see as overcautious responses to scandals Democrats find themselves dogged by
Lee Jae-myung, the leader of Korea’s top opposition Democratic Party, steps out of a car on Aug. 25 to attend his hearing at the Seoul Central District Court on counts of violating the Public Official Election Act. (Yonhap)
Lee Jae-myung, the leader of Korea’s top opposition Democratic Party, steps out of a car on Aug. 25 to attend his hearing at the Seoul Central District Court on counts of violating the Public Official Election Act. (Yonhap)

“I will launch myself fully into painstaking efforts to create a totally new Democratic Party.”

So declared Lee Jae-myung in his acceptance speech after he was chosen as Democratic Party leader in a convention one year ago on Aug. 28, 2022.

Many were critical of the former presidential candidate’s runs for a National Assembly seat and the party leadership at a time when the Yoon Suk-yeol administration had arrived in office and prosecutors were investigating Lee in connection with allegations of special treatment in a development project in Seongnam’s Daejang neighborhood.

While some contended that he was running in an attempt to shield himself, many also voiced hopes that he would pursue unity and innovation in his leadership as the party’s only strong presidential contender.

A year later, assessments of his leadership have cooled. Not only members of the party’s Lee Nak-yon wing but even “middle-of-the-road” lawmakers have raised doubts about his ability to lead, citing his overly cautious attitude in dealing with allegations of vote-buying at a party convention, scandal over lawmaker Kim Nam-kuk’s speculation in virtual assets, and controversy surrounding the party’s innovation committee head, Kim Eun-kyung.

While Yoon’s approval ratings remain firmly stuck in the 30%–40% range, the Democratic Party has proven incapable of pulling in support from the 30% of South Koreans counted as swing voters. Indeed, its ratings remain more or less neck-and-neck with the ruling People Power Party.

“They’ve been so busy fending off an onslaught from prosecutors and the administration that they haven’t been able to give enough energy to their role in directing work in the National Assembly as the main opposition party or effectively curbing the administration,” a second-term Democratic Party lawmaker without strong factional affiliations told the Hankyoreh on Sunday. In other words, Lee Jae-myung has spent half of his two-year term as party leader battling legal liabilities.

An even bigger test appears to await him in the remainder of his term. He is expected to face ongoing pressure to make a “political decision” at some point between prosecutors’ second attempt to detain him, the possible passage of a motion permitting his arrest, and the upcoming general election in April 2024.

Prosecutors, who are currently investigating the Baekhyeon neighborhood development case and the SBW Group-North Korea money transfer case, are expected to issue an arrest warrant for Lee during next month’s regular session of the National Assembly following the conclusion of their questioning of Lee on Wednesday.

“The clash between prosecutors and the Democratic Party, which has been going on for one and a half years since the presidential election last year, will climax in September,” another lawmaker without strong factional leanings commented. “How the arrest motion is processed, whether the court issues a warrant, and how public sentiment develops afterward will lay the groundwork for the ruling and opposition parties’ general election strategies.”

Lee will have to bear all the responsibility for determinations made during this entire process. Although the leadership of the Democratic Party is wavering between voting down the arrest motion and leaving it up to a free vote assuming its approval, this is all mere speculation, and when an arrest warrant is actually issued, Lee’s judgment will be most important as the person whose name is on the warrant.

“Lee already seems to be beyond the point of calculating whether the arrest motion will be voted down or not,” shared a Democratic Party official. “Currently, his mindset is focused on how to win public support even on the off chance that he is arrested.”

If Lee’s judgment depends on public sentiment regarding the general election, factional conflict within the Democratic Party hinges on whether the party can win the general election with Lee as its figurehead. Even if Lee, the majority shareholder of the Democratic Party, is arrested, he could continue to exert his influence behind bars via the new party leadership elected through the party convention or the emergency planning committee, the prospect of which is raising tensions within the party.

A lawmaker who does not belong to Lee’s faction remarked, “If Lee does not step down from the position of party leader on his own regardless of his arrest, those who have raised the flag of reform and change will end up fighting Lee, whether their number is 40 or 50.”

By Um Ji-won, staff reporter; Kang Jae-gu, staff reporter

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