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(LEAD) Young underdog takes main opposition's leadership race by storm

All News 21:38 May 25, 2021

(ATTN: ADDS new poll results in paras 6, 15)
By Park Boram

SEOUL, May 25 (Yonhap) -- Lee Jun-seok, a 30-something reform-minded former member of the main opposition party's supreme council, has taken the party's ongoing leadership race by storm, backed by young voters looking for a sweeping reform in the conservative party.

About three weeks ahead of the main opposition People Power Party's (PPP) leadership election on June 11, the 36-year-old Lee emerged to claim a landslide opinion poll lead against seven rival contenders, including two powerful party bigwigs.

The surprise ascent of Lee, the youngest-ever contender for the command of the biggest conservative party, is a clear reminder of the urgency the party is facing in reforming the party's unpopular image.

This image shows Lee Jun-seok, a candidate for the chairmanship of the People Power Party. (Yonhap)

This image shows Lee Jun-seok, a candidate for the chairmanship of the People Power Party. (Yonhap)

Lee made a splash earlier this week when he emerged as the most favored candidate for the PPP leadership in an opinion poll by Hangil Research. Lee garnered 30.1 percent of support.

The poll put Lee at a solid 12.7 percentage points ahead of runner-up Na Kyung-won, a former four-term lawmaker who served as the party's floor leader. She gave way to Lee after topping Hangil's previous opinion poll a week earlier.

In another survey released later on Tuesday, Lee scored 30.3 percent of support, ahead of Na's 18.4 percent. It was conducted by Realmeter over the weekend.

Lee's campaign received robust support from young voters in their 30s and 40s in particular as well as moderate voters looking for a chance of a party reform in the young politician's short-but-bold political career path.

A Harvard graduate, Lee made his political debut under the limelight in 2011, joining the emergency leadership committee of the biggest conservative party, then named Grand National Party, at the age of 26 under the auspice of then party leader Park Geun-hye.

He became a reform icon for the conservative bloc for his unwavering criticism of Park, who went on to become president but faced impeachment in 2017 over corruption charges.

With no record of serving a parliamentary term, Lee entered the PPP's leadership race as an underdog.

But the young candidate has not shied away from speaking up on controversial issues, including his call for the abolition of favor given to women by the party in the election nomination process, luring young, mostly male, voters to his campaign.

"This is a direction chosen by those who prefer reform to stability," Lee told Yonhap News Agency earlier this week after the poll results were released.

In a separate interview earlier this month, he made a strong case for his candidacy, saying, "The latest by-elections clearly showed that securing the support of the (young) generations in their 20s and 30s ... will be the first task in the path to a presidential election victory."

Lee's opinion poll advance put two established senior party rivals -- Na and incumbent five-term lawmaker Joo Ho-young -- on edge.

This image shows five-term lawmaker Joo Ho-young, who is running for the chairmanship of the People Power Party. (Yonhap)

This image shows five-term lawmaker Joo Ho-young, who is running for the chairmanship of the People Power Party. (Yonhap)

Joo played down the latest poll results, saying, during his appearance on a YouTube channel a day earlier, that they do not represent "the real atmosphere" because the poll overrepresented voters in the capital area as well as young voters. The former floor leader garnered 9.3 percent of support in the Hangil survey and 9.5 percent in the Realmeter poll.

Na, meanwhile, compared Lee and other younger-generation candidates running for the party leadership to a sports car unfit for the "narrow and bumpy road" to the presidential election next year, triggering a spat.

"The new party chairman will need to navigate through narrow back alleys on a fully laden cargo truck, not a cool, pretty sports car," she said in a radio interview on Monday, apparently underplaying Lee's campaign.

From Wednesday through Thursday, the PPP will hold a primary to narrow down the party leadership race to five candidates through a poll evenly based on voting by party members and private citizens.

The final five candidates will compete in the party convention on June 11, with 70 percent of the results decided by voting by party members and the remaining 30 percent depending on public opinion polls. Lee, if elected, will become the youngest-ever politician leading a mainstream political party in South Korea.

Former four-term lawmaker Na Kyung-won (Yonhap)

Former four-term lawmaker Na Kyung-won (Yonhap)


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