The Saenuri party faithful descended on Jamsil Stadium yesterday to elect their new leader in the midst of factional rivalries. The old guard turned out loud and proud, but they saw their grip on power within the party loosen in the face of falling poll numbers amongst the youth in Korea.
Centrist favourite Kim Moo-sung comfortably beat the ‘godfather’ of the pro-Park faction Suh Chung-won in the race to become the leader of the party. Although Suh gained one of the four seats on the supreme council, the votes of 200,000 members and the public opinion poll numbers that counted towards the ballot reflected the desire of the Saenuri party to become more independent from the Park administration.
In the candidates’ final remarks before the ballot, the focus was more on their personal records and their goals rather than any policy. Kim however did offer some hints of what direction he would take the party in what analysts believe to be a run for the Presidency in 2017.
“Saenuri should lead the way to improve people’s quality of life and ease their pain,” said Kim. “We have to enhance the insufficient growth rate caused by used up growth potential and low quality growth which does not accompany employment. We must also solve the unjust rules of the game which cause polarization.”
As leader Kim has promised to make the party more independent of the Park administration, at the same time working together to ensure a stronger party.
Suh on the other hand said he wanted to build a closer relationship between the party and the President and emphasised his personal ties with Park and his wealth of experience in his allotted 6-minute speech. Despite his popularity within the old guard he had faced controversy in the past over election-related bribery. He promised a more individualistic style of leadership.
“If I become the representitive I can fulfill the responsibility of the leader of the party by dealing with every political issue in Yeouido,” said Suh. “Many prospective people belong to our party. They can be next and next next presidential candidates. The next leader has a duty to bring them up.”
Suh said he would work to unite the party no matter the outcome of the election, at one point marching down the stage to hold his hands aloft with his main opponent, and the new chairman, Kim. Suh supporters however did not applaud or stand at any point during Kim’s remarks, a sign of the generational and factional divide within the party ranks.
One of the biggest causes of the divide is the concern within the party of their low support among South Korean youth. Less than 20 percent of voters in their 20s support the Saenuri Party according to a Gallup Korea poll of late June.
Lee Jun-seok, one of the poster boys of the younger Saenuri Party members, attributed some of the blame to the Blue House. A graduate of Harvard University, the entrepreneur-turned-politician is head of the innovation council. He made the unusual move of openly criticizing the party and President Park’s nominations to Prime Minister.
“I think the party should strengthen moral standards, for instance,” he said. “People like Rep. Moon Dae-sung should have stayed out of the party.”
The President herself is aware of the challenge. In her keynote address before the voting began she encouraged the party to be united and to do more for the average Korean.
“What I expect from the party and the party members is whole-heartedly working for the people. If we do not pull off the country’s reform drive, we will lose the trust of the people,” she said.
The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) labelled Park’s visit to the convention in the build up to by-elections at the end of the month a “serious foul” and said the pro-Park and anti-Park conflict engulfing the party was a “family conflict.”