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Park moves to cement conservative base

The Saenuri Party’s presidential candidate Park Geun-hye is courting her former rivals and adversaries in an effort to unite the conservative faction ahead of the Dec. 19 presidential election.

Lee Hoi-chang, the three-time presidential candidate and former head of the Grand National Party, the predecessor to the Saenuri Party, joined Park’s campaign last week.

She is also seeking support from Lee Jae-oh, who once headed the GNP’s mainstream group loyal to President Lee Myung-bak, which had long fought with her over party power.

Her campaign has increasingly embraced centrist policies in economic and welfare issues, which was seen to have alienated her traditional conservative supporters.

“I decided on supporting (Park’s campaign) in order to defend the legitimacy of South Korea and protect free democracy and on the determination that doing so would require preventing a leftist regime from taking power once again,” said Lee in a press conference last Saturday held at the Saenuri Party’s headquarters in Yeouido.

“By getting Park elected president, I hope to realize the dream that I was never able to fulfill,” he said, adding that he was joining the party as a rank-and-file member and that he would be willing to appear with Park at campaign stops.

Lee ran as the GNP’s presidential candidate in the 1997 and 2002 presidential elections, losing each time to liberal candidates Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, respectively.

In the 2007 presidential election, Lee broke from the GNP and formed his own party, the Advancement and Unification Party, and ran against GNP’s candidate Lee Myung-bak and the Democratic Party’s Chung Dong-young. Park had been defeated in the GNP primaries by the man who made his name at Hyundai as the “bulldozer.”

Lee Hoi-chang had actively sought the endorsement of Park in the weeks leading up to the 2007 election, visiting her house three times, and being rejected each time.

In the 2007 election, Lee Myung-bak ended up with 48.7 percent of the popular vote, followed by Chung with 26.1 percent, and Lee Hoi-chang with 15.1 percent.

Lee’s support is widely seen as likely to attract support from the crucial swing provinces of Chungcheong, where the former supreme court justice enjoyed strong support in the 2007 election.

Park is reportedly courting several other political heavyweights in the conservative faction, especially those who can sway supporters of the incumbent president.

The names being tossed around include Na Kyung-won, the former spokeswoman of GNP and unsuccessful candidate in last year’s election for Seoul mayor.

Lee Jae-oh, who had served in President Lee’s cabinet and is seen as one his most loyal allies, is also reported to be another big-name conservative whose endorsement is sought by Park.

Lee had spent his student years protesting the authoritarian regime of Park’s father, late President Park Chung-hee, and was jailed several times for violating the emergency decrees established during the Yushin period. As the right-hand man of the incumbent president, Lee led the attacks on Park.

Last year, he criticized Park for not pushing the constitutional reforms that President Lee was pushing, including revising the terms of the presidency. “We must do away with the remains of the Yushin constitution,” he said at the time. His relationship with Park is described as difficult, to put it mildly. Recently, in a speech on constitutional reform, he said that this year’s presidential election “is merely a breeze that is passing through my heart.” 

By Samuel Songhoon Lee