By Shin Hae-in
SEOUL, Feb. 29 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's ruling party appears to be losing some of its initial strong public support ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections amid ongoing disputes over President Lee Myung-bak's minister nominees.
Lee's landslide win in the December presidential election on the ticket of the Grand National Party (GNP), which brought an end to a decade of liberal rule, gave the GNP hopes of winning a majority of the 299 National Assembly seats in the April elections.
Indeed, the nation's ideological pendulum appeared to have shifted significantly to the right, with the conservative party's popularity soaring to above 50 percent, while its rival's popularity plummeted to below 10 percent.
But Lee's recent choice of rich Cabinet minister nominees has ignited public concerns that the new government may focus only on policies for the rich while abandoning the underprivileged, giving people the idea that a strong opposition is needed to keep Lee and his party in check.
Moreover, Lee has mostly chosen members from the nation's southeastern region, the political stronghold of his Grand National Party, in a move that may not go down well with voters from rival regions.
"The GNP's fate (in April elections) will be heavily dependent on the performance of the new president, especially due to the untouchable popularity he enjoyed in the December election," said political analyst Park Sung-min. "As many people still view the GNP as a relatively richer and corruption-prone party after the bribery scandal in the 2002 presidential election, the party could face a serious blow because of Lee's rich Cabinet."
Lee's Cabinet nominees are up to three times richer than those of former President Roh Moo-hyun, possessing average assets of almost 4 billion won ($4.2 million).
Three of Lee's 15 Cabinet minister nominees withdrew, shamed over alleged real estate speculation, tax evasion and other improper financial conduct.
Lee himself was slammed by rivals during the presidential campaign over alleged wrongdoing in his accumulation of vast wealth.
Lee, who served as chief executive officer of Hyundai Construction and Engineering, registered his assets at 35.3 billion won during the campaign.
Striving to polish his image that was tarnished by allegations linking him to several financial scandals, which he has since been cleared of, Lee pledged to donate most of his personal property to society.
A majority of people, however, responded negatively to his donation pledge, with a survey last year by polling group TNS Korea finding that over 50 percent of respondents downplayed his decision as an attempt to dilute criticism on his alleged lack of ethics.
Recent surveys show that the popularity of President Lee and his party has decreased after announcement of the Cabinet lineup, though by a small margin of 5-7 percentage points.
Also, up to 35 percent of people said they support parties other than the GNP because of a need to keep the new government in check, according to a Feb. 23 poll of 1,000 adults nationwide conducted by local broadcaster KBS.
"Should Lee fail to carry out his pledges to the general public, voters could be pushed to again make decisions based on the region they come from," said Kim Na-young, a researcher at TNS Korea. "There are already changes seen in the metropolitan Seoul and Jeolla regions. The GNP must strive harder to understand the voter sentiment in order to achieve its goal in this year's general elections."
Kim was talking about the time-honored regional rivalry in which the southwestern Jeolla provinces have supported the parties of former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, political rivals of Lee.
A recent merger among rival parties and their united attack on Lee's wealthy team are also threatening the GNP's public support.
The former United New Democratic Party and the Democratic Party merged and became the UDP last month, after failed attempts before the December presidential race.
Smaller conservative parties -- the Liberty Forward Party and People First Party -- have also merged, with a vow to set up a "new" conservatism to keep the GNP in check.
The two parties are now making use of the dispute over Lee's Cabinet lineup to play up the idea that a strong opposition is needed to curb the GNP.
"The GNP's move to hastily wrap up disputes (over the minister nominees) shows in advance what could happen if it seizes enough seats to change the Constitution on its own," said UDP spokesperson Choi Jae-sung. "We will do all we can to prevent such an incident."
The UDP, holding 141 seats in the 299-legislature compared to the GNP's 130, is striving hard to improve its image by introducing fresh candidates, persuading older lawmakers to drop their bids for nomination.
Political pundits warn, however, that the UDP must control its objections to the GNP and the new government as it could face a voter backlash in the April elections if it excessively blocks national affairs.
Amid the intense political conflict over the new Cabinet, Lee has gotten off to a rough start, with Roh's ministers staying until the new Cabinet is confirmed by the National Assembly.
"The prospects have evidently been brightened for the liberal party, but it must plan its next move carefully in order not to disturb the public sentiment by preventing the smooth running of state affairs," said political analyst Im Myung-jin of the Progressive Politics Institute.
The GNP is striving to generate public criticism of the main opposition for its "noncooperative" action, and is determined to accomplish its goal of winning a majority in the April elections.
"The UDP was utterly unsupportive of our efforts to launch the new administration, and is still making political use of the dispute," GNP floor leader Ahn Sang-soo said. "This ridiculous situation makes me renew my determination to secure a majority as we should never be dragged down by opposition parties for the next five years."
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