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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on June 14)

All News 07:00 June 14, 2021

Winds of change
Election of 30-something as chair of major party heralds political upheaval

The emergence of a politician in his 30s as the leader of a major party, despite his never even having been a lawmaker, heralds an upheaval in national politics.

Lee Jun-seok, 36, was elected chairperson of the People Power Party on Friday. It is the first time in South Korea's modern history that a 30-something politician has led a party large enough to have legislative bargaining power in the National Assembly. He trailed his closest rival in a ballot for party members but beat her overwhelmingly in a poll of voters who were not members. Unlike the other candidates, he had neither a campaign staff nor a campaign office. He campaigned on social media.

Just a month ago, a win for Lee would have been unimaginable. Yet he has made a meteoric rise, defying conventional wisdom on party politics. His surprise victory is evidence of strong desire for change.

Conservatives' aspirations for a change of government were the most decisive factor behind his win. But it can also be seen as an expression of popular demand for a change in the domestic political scene, long dominated by politicians with vested rights. Voters gave him a chance to bring about change and innovation by breaking down an outdated seniority-based political hierarchy.

It is no exaggeration to say that the nation's party politics are fraught with machinations and partisanship as politicians try to protect their status and privilege rather than following their political creeds. In the current National Assembly, the conservative opposition party gives off the image of a patriarchal old man who forces his thoughts on the younger generation while pursuing money and power. The liberal ruling Democratic Party of Korea, under the control of former pro-democracy activists now in their 50s, has alienated people with its double standards as shown in a number of scandals involving former Justice Minister Cho Kuk.

The people's aversion to obsolete party politics bolstered support for Lee. It is noteworthy that the winds of change blew first in a conservative party that prioritizes stability and seniority.

Lee emphasized coexistence, harmony, fairness and change, but he has many hurdles to clear if he is to achieve those goals, such as communicating with experienced politicians and retaining his grip on the party. Lee should not forget that many eyes have fallen on the main opposition party because people are disappointed in the dogmatism, incompetence and arrogance of the left-leaning ruling party, which wields a large majority in the parliament.

His tasks are to renovate and reform his party as he promised. His pressing assignment is to unify conservatives and integrate opposition parties ahead of the presidential election, which is nine months away. He should demonstrate an ability to manage the process of electing the party's presidential candidate fairly. Many expect him to draw former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl -- who currently tops opinion polls among potential presidential candidates -- into the party.

To propel the party to triumph in the presidential election, he needs to show leadership in communication and engagement, as well as youthful passion and an enterprising spirit.

He must go beyond the role of speaking for those in their 20s and 30s and give responsible messages on national issues. Only if he does so can he dispel concerns that he is too young to lead a major party.

Lee received strong support from voters who were not members of the party, but he fell behind another candidate in a poll of party members. He will likely face resistance from those members who did not vote for him. He will need to overcome this problem too.

The ruling party needs to pay attention to the winds of change blowing in from the opposition party. The era of the former pro-democracy activists who gained power under President Moon Jae-in is waning. The party should keep in mind that if it ignores the popular desire for new politics and stays a dogmatic course, its future will vanish.

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