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(Yonhap Interview) Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung

All Headlines 21:05 December 15, 2016

Seongnam mayor soars in presidential polls riding anti-establishment sentiment
By Kim Kyoung-tae and Kang Yoon-seung

SEOUL, Dec. 15 (Yonhap) -- Just two months ago Lee Jae-myung was one of a crop of fringe aspirants for the presidency, trailing far behind political bigwigs. The mayor of Seongnam, a satellite city of Seoul, saw an unexpected rise in polls recently with his sharp words and bold actions against President Park Geun-hye and the establishment.

Now, as one of the most-favored potential presidential contenders, the liberal politician attempted another gambit by championing an opposition alliance in the lead up to the election, which could come earlier than expected if the top court endorses Park's impeachment.

"The opposition bloc must try union and alliance, and in the worst case we may have to merge campaigns for a single candidacy," Lee, 51, said during an interview with Yonhap News Agency. "Political forces splitting in pursuit of self-interest are not what people want to see."

The feisty, brash-talking politician affiliated with the main opposition Democratic Party has run Seongnam since 2010.

In the early stage of the corruption scandal involving the president and her longtime confidante, Lee clamored for her immediate resignation. His anti-Park crusade has propelled his popularity into double digits.

In a survey conducted last week by local pollster Gallup Korea, Lee's support ratings rose to 18 percent, compared with 5 percent recorded in October. The latest survey put him in third place after Moon Jae-in, former leader of the Democratic Party, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who are tied at 20 percent.

The survey was conducted on 1,012 people with a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

(Yonhap Interview) Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung - 1

Critics call the mayor a populist, attributing his popularity to his aggressive welfare pledges. They also dismiss his ascent as a transient phenomenon that emerged at a time of national crisis. But he is confident of the solidity of his support.

"I did not expect the rating to soar this fast. The fast rise in my support is because the people found out the truth quickly in a very fast-changing situation. But it was not a judgment made in an excited state so will not be withdrawn," Lee said.

The mayor also boasts of his policy experience as chief administrator of the local government, which he expects to give him an advantage over rivals including Ban.

"(Ban) will have difficulty running in the election. As pragmatic values gain more importance, fancy experiences are no longer attractive," Lee said.

Lee's call for an opposition alliance has recently triggered speculations that he may be trying to muster his own political forces to compete against Moon.

He denied such claims, saying he is in the same boat as the former Democratic Party head.

"The people do not want a great leader, but a faithful supporter. A single person cannot do this, and there must be a team," Lee said.

Lee reiterated opposition parties should embrace the voices of their supporters who call on them to unite to challenge political conservatives.

"Efforts for that must begin now," he said.

"I believe the parties will hold reasonable primaries where more people can participate," Lee said, adding the country can learn lessons from the U.S.

"The establishment of the Republican Party failed to stop the rise of Trump. The mainstream members of the Democratic Party dumped Sanders. The final winner was Trump who joined hands with the people," Lee said.

The mayor vowed to focus on promoting inclusive development and improving workers' rights to make Korea a fair society free from corruption and inequality.

"My goal is to pave the way for fair competition with fair rules. If we eliminate illegal overtime work, we can create more jobs," Lee said. "Companies should pay the same wage for the same kind of work, and refrain from illegal outsourcing."

"An increase of irregular workers hinders technology development and destroys the economy. We need to bolster workers' rights and bring reforms to ban businesses from exploiting workers," Lee said.

Lee also urged South Korea's family-controlled conglomerates, known as chaebol, to invite government officials and workers to their board for more transparent decision-making procedures.

Lee opposes a recent proposal for constitutional revision, though he advocates amendment in the long term to shift from the existing single five-year presidency to a renewable four-year presidency, and to relinquish powers currently concentrated in the central government to local governments.

"The next president should start the discussion, and seek to implement the revision in 2020," Lee suggested.

When asked about the prospect of his public approval, Lee said the rating will continue to rise as long as he tries his best to reflect the people's voice.

"But it will stop, or even drop, if I start to pursue my own selfish interests," Lee said.


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