September 27, 2021

Asia

SOUTH KOREA: Front-runners emerge in party primaries ahead of presidential race

BY James Brady, Teneo, Victor Cha

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( 4 mins)
  • With the presidential primary season underway, Gyeonggi province governor Lee Jae-myung leads former prime minister Lee Nak-yeon in the race to be the ruling Democratic Party (DP)’s candidate.
  • For the opposition People Power Party (PPP), former prosecutor-general Yoon Seok-youl leads National Assembly member Hong Jun-pyo, who was runner-up in the 2017 presidential race to Moon Jae-in.
  • The DP’s nominee should be known by 15 October and the PPP’s by 5 November, with next year’s presidential vote set for 9 March.

Ruling party primaries

The race to the Blue House has begun. In the most recent primary vote of the ruling progressive Democratic Party (DP), the leading contenders were Lee Jae- myung on 51% and Lee Nak-yeon on 31%. Lee Jae-myung has been governor of the most populous province Gyeonggi since 2018, having previously been eclipsed by the current president in the last party primary race. He is known as a proponent of Universal Basic Income (UBI), arguing that all citizens should receive an equal financial grant from the government on a regular basis regardless of their income or assets. Lee also wants to lift some sanctions on North Korea in exchange for denuclearization measures, provided there are ‘snap-back clauses’ should Pyongyang renege. Recently, he has had to fend off allegations of improper property dealings when mayor of a Seoul suburb.

Lee Nak-yeon this month stepped down as a four-term member of the National Assembly, having become South Korea’s longest-serving prime minister in modern times while in office from 2017 until 2020. Hand-picked for that position by President Moon Jae-in, Lee Nak-yeon is in effect the continuity candidate, and plans to inherit and further develop Moon’s policy agenda.

Opposition primaries

Conservatives are expecting a stronger showing in the next election than in 2017, when they were still reeling from the impeachment of disgraced former president Park Geun-hye. The current front-runner for the opposition People Power Party (PPP) is political neophyte Yoon Seok-youl, who in March resigned as prosecutor-general after a two-year tussle with the Moon administration over the indictment of scandal-tainted former justice minister Cho Kuk. Yoon became the symbol of anti-Moon factions following the confrontation, and after initially declaring his presidential ambitions running as an independent, he is now seeking the PPP nomination on a platform of opposing Moon’s nuclear power phase-out, pursuing a tougher line on China (along with a more dovish “future-oriented relationship” with Japan), and potentially applying to join the Quad. The son of the founder of the Korean Statistical Society, Yoon looks to have a reasonably high probability of winning the nomination.

He is up against a seasoned politician in Hong Jun-pyo. Despite losing out in the 2017 election as the candidate of the now-defunct right-wing populist Liberty Korea Party, Hong’s presidential ambitions haven’t waned. With a reputation as a fiscal conservative, Hong has also called for the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, as a deterrent against nuclear threats from the North.

Calendars

In terms of the primary calendars, the DP preliminary vote that ended on 11 July produced the six remaining candidates, while the main primary consists of three rounds of electoral college votes, ending 12 September, 3 October, and 10 October respectively. If no candidate wins an overall majority, the top two will have a run-off within about five days.

For the PPP, the first-round vote that ended on 15 September selected eight candidates, with voting weighted 20% party members and 80% public survey. The second round ending 8 October will winnow the field further to four, using a 30-70 split. The third round will end on 4 November, with a 50-50 split, and the party’s standard-bearer will be announced on 5 November. In recent national public opinion polls, Lee Jae-myung and Yoon have both enjoyed support rates close to 30%, while Lee Nak-yeon and Hong have each registered around 15% support.

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