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(LEAD) Main opposition party picks new leader

All Headlines 13:43 July 03, 2017

(ATTN: ADDS Hong's remarks in 4th para; CHANGES photo)

SEOUL, July 3 (Yonhap) -- The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) on Monday picked Hong Joon-pyo, its former presidential candidate, as its new leader tasked with restoring internal cohesion, rallying conservatives and regaining public support.

Hong, 62, beat two competitors -- Reps. Won Yoo-chul and Shin Sang-jin -- based on the combined results of a vote by party delegates and an opinion poll, which were weighted 70 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

The brash-talking prosecutor-turned-politician filled the top post that has been left vacant since former leader Lee Jung-hyun bowed out in December after former President Park Geun-hye, a core party member, was impeached over a massive corruption scandal.

"I feel the heavy responsibility with this election," he said during his acceptance speech. "I promise that I will refurbish and revamp the party to win back support from you, citizens."

Hong Joon-pyo, the new leader of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, rejoices after his election victory during a party convention in Namyangju near Seoul on July 3, 2017. (Yonhap)

Hong, now, faces an array of daunting tasks, including regrouping the party to better keep the ruling liberal bloc in check and to prepare for next year's gubernatorial and mayoral elections seen as a public referendum on President Moon Jae-in's job performance.

Shoring up public support also remains a tough challenge. Support ratings for the LKP with 107 seats in the 299-member National Assembly have recently been hovering below 10 percent. Last week, a survey by Gallup Korea showed its rating dipped to 7 percent, 2 percentage points lower than that of the minor Bareun Party that has only 20 lawmakers.

Shaking off the party's image associated with the corruption-tainted former president is another major task -- a reason why Hong's repeated calls for a "deep reflection and new start" resonated with the demoralized party ranks.

Hong also faces the prospect of a merger with the minor conservative Bareun Party, which splintered off from the LKP late last year amid an intense factional feud over the scandal involving Park.

Hong has stressed his party's "genuine, legitimate" pedigree of conservatism, which created the notion that he seeks to absorb the splinter party on his own terms. The Bareun Party, however, insists it would go its own way to serve its purpose of creating "new, warm, transparent" conservatism.

Despite the repercussions of the March ouster of the former president, Hong garnered 24 percent of the vote in the May 9 presidential poll.

Hong is a folksy yet sharp-tongued politician known for his unyielding drive and unsparing attacks on rivals.

Before entering politics in 1996, he rose to prominence after rounding up crime organizations and a powerful gambling ring, which inspired a mega-hit TV drama.

Hong was first elected to parliament that year but lost his seat three years later after being convicted of violating the election law. He returned to the assembly in 2001 by winning a Seoul by-election and grew influential while serving until 2012.

He held the powerful positions of chairman, floor leader and Supreme Council member in the Grand National Party, now the Liberty Korea Party, before being elected as the governor of South Gyeongsang Province in a by-election in December 2012. He was re-elected in 2014.

During his some 20-year political life, Hong often invited controversies with his virulent attacks on opponents.

He once called an opposition regional councilor "trash" and most recently disparaged former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun as a "man who killed himself after taking bribes."

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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