Lee steers Dems to victory, paving way for bid in next presidential election

Posted on : 2024-04-11 17:22 KST Modified on : 2024-04-11 17:22 KST
While the resounding victory for the opposition is a boon to Lee Jae-myung, he’ll still have to prove himself as a capable leader in the months and years to come
Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung applauds as he and other members of party leadership watch exit poll results come in on April 10, 2024, the day of Korea’s general elections. (pool photo)
Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung applauds as he and other members of party leadership watch exit poll results come in on April 10, 2024, the day of Korea’s general elections. (pool photo)

As the Democratic Party is expected to secure a landslide victory in South Korea’s parliamentary elections, party leader Lee Jae-myung has solidified his position as the helmsman of the political opposition. 

Having successfully veered the party in his direction through his nominations of candidates in the general election, Lee is expected to make a third run at the presidency in 2027. Before that, however, he will have to demonstrate that he’s more than a cudgel against Yoon, but an effective and competent leader in his own right.

Since his loss to Yoon in the 2022 presidential election, Lee has served as leader of the Democratic Party whilst facing various investigations by prosecutors and court appearances. This has caused significant divisions within the Democratic Party. After prosecutors twice sought a warrant for his arrest, Lee was accused of using the immunity from arrest granted to elected lawmakers to make himself “bulletproof.” Lee even made a court appearance on Tuesday, on the eve of the election.  

Yet in taking the bull by the horns, such as through his weekslong hunger strike in August, Lee appears to have caught a second wind in his role as party leader.

“This general election was essentially a proxy presidential election between Lee and Yoon. This time, Lee emerged victorious,” said a Democratic Party candidate representing a district within the greater Seoul area.

Throughout February and March, internal party discontent among anti-Lee factions over nominations for the general election led to some lawmakers leaving the party and forming third parties. Yet in spite of internal divisions, the Democratic Party has managed to secure a significant parliamentary majority in this election cycle. 

Having weathered the storm, Lee is the last man standing, and has effectively strengthened his grip over the party. 

The general election was the Democratic Party’s first nationwide victory under Lee’s leadership. Moreover, party members who opposed Lee were effectively rooted out in the past election cycle’s nominations. There is an overwhelming consensus among observers that Lee has fortified his political base, allowing him to operate with little to no internal resistance until the next presidential election.

“This is more than a simple electoral victory. If the Democrat Party emerges from this election with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, who will be able to oppose Lee within the party at that point?” said a newly elected lawmaker based in a Seoul district.

“At that point, people won’t even be able to bring up questionable nominations,” the lawmaker said.

Yet even once he secures a comfortable majority in the National Assembly, Lee won’t be able to coast politically. While managing the majority in the legislature, he will need to demonstrate his ability to govern and maintain stability within the party. He will also need to present a clear set of policies that will win over both his fellow party members and the voting public. 

As Cho Kuk’s newly formed Rebuilding Korea Party continues to make waves, the Democratic Party will need to take a multi-dimensional approach as the main opposition party.

“Despite the Democratic Party’s victory in the general election, the party now faces the task of separating itself from and competing with the Rebuilding Korea Party in terms of public image and policy,” said an anonymous political insider.

Moreover, Lee’s legal troubles are far from over. He’s still wrapped in corruption allegations connected to real estate projects in Seongnam’s Daejang and Baekhyeon neighborhoods. He’s also facing trial for allegedly spreading false information during his 2022 presidential campaign (violation of Public Official Election Act), and suspicions of committing perjury during the resulting trial in 2018.

Some pro-Lee party members are hoping that the courts will be swayed by public opinion, as they say the indictments were political from the beginning. Yet nobody can predict the future with absolute certainty. Despite the general election victory, Lee still has many challenges ahead.    

By Um Ji-won, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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