(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES with more info throughout)
SEOUL, Feb. 27 (Yonhap) -- The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) held a national convention to elect its new chief Wednesday, with former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn widely expected to win the race backed by the party's conservative establishment.
Hwang, former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and far-right lawmaker Kim Jin-tae competed to become the new chair of its top leadership council, who will navigate the conservative party to the 2020 parliamentary elections. The five other members of the council will also be elected.
Hwang has stayed ahead of the two rivals as the party's traditional mainstream appears to want a stable conservative leadership to tackle the incumbent liberal government and an increasingly fierce ultra-rightist movement within the party led by loyalists to former President Park Geun-hye.
Park was ousted in March 2017 and is now in jail over a corruption scandal.
Hwang, 62, was prime minister from 2015-17 in the Park administration and served as acting president when she was suspended from office by parliamentary impeachment in late 2016 over a string of corruption and power abuse charges.
Opinion polls show he is viewed among conservative voters as one of the most favorable candidates for the 2022 presidential election. Still, he faces a stigma for his close affiliation with Park.
Once viewed as a moderate politician in the conservative bloc, Oh received support from non-followers of Park during the campaign. He has pledged to reform the party and change the image of the party tied to Park's impeachment.
Oh returned to the fold in November after he defected from the then Saenuri Party in January 2017 and entered a new center-right party following the impeachment of Park. He stepped down as Seoul mayor in 2011 over a row about free school lunches.
Rep. Kim stands at the center of public criticism over an ultra-right movement in the party.
He has came under fire over the hosting of a public forum with two LKP members early this month where they made controversial remarks disparaging a pro-democracy movement in the southwestern city of Gwangju in 1980.
Far-right followers of Park, who strongly supported Kim, also drew public outcry as they openly booed ae nd heckled Kim's rivals and shouted insults at them during campaigning.
Who comes in second place will be yardstick in judging whether the LKP is leaning toward an ultra-right path, experts say.
Referring to the campaign marred by factional divides, critics said the LKP still sticks to its past without making efforts to be reborn as a new, firm conservative party.
Originally, eight politicians announced their bids for the election, but only three joined the race. Of them, six persons, including Oh and former party chairman Hong Joon-pyo, threatened to boycott the election, calling on the party to postpone it until after a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Wednesday and Thursday in Hanoi. The party rejected their demand.
Five contenders withdrew their bids, and only Oh reaffirmed his bid in a last-minute decision.
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