Although there are several hopefuls, the race has essentially come down to Reps. Suh Chung-won and Kim Moo-sung.
Suh is a seven-term lawmaker often referred to as the “original pro-Park Geun-hye” for his close and long-running ties to the president.
Kim, on the other hand, has had a mixed relationship with the president. Although he was one of her closest associates in the past, he was pushed out of the inner circle only to be brought back in during the 2012 presidential election.
Kim, a five-term lawmaker, has been less concerned with staying on the president’s good side than with pursuing his own brand of politics, which pundits say was the reason he was cast out in the first place.
Unlike Suh, who has spent much of his time emphasizing the need to support the president, Kim claims that his aim as the party chairman is to nurture a relationship of “healthy tension” and to keep Cheong Wa Dae in check when necessary.
Recent surveys have put Kim in the lead, with one putting him nearly 10 percentage points ahead of Suh. Buoyed by such results, Kim has been vocal in expressing his confidence.
“As a small gap between the first and second places could again bring chaos to the party, (I) will endeavor to win with an overwhelming difference,” Kim said on Thursday after registering as a candidate.
In addition to Saenuri Party members, the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy is also likely to favor Kim, experts say.
“The opposition would prefer Kim as he is comparatively autonomous. They would consider (Kim) to be easier to cooperate with than the pro-Parks,” said Choi Young-jin, professor of Korean politics at Chung-Ang University.
For the ruling party, however, Choi says that Kim will present something of a dilemma.
“Groups critical of Park should be strengthened within the ruling party, but for the ruling party (the question of) whether to nurture such groups is a big concern and a big burden.”
Regardless of the potential problems Kim may pose, experts say the five-term lawmaker would be the opposition party’s first choice.
“I suspect the opposition will prefer Kim. Suh is also capable of communicating but (the opposition) would prefer a non-pro-Park over a pro-Park,” a political science professor said, requesting anonymity. “Cheong Wa Dae would prefer Suh as he would be able to represent the government more strongly in the parliament.”
As for Saenuri-Cheong Wa Dae relations, experts say that the ruling party will become more independent of the president.
“Suh spoke his mind during the Moon Chang-keuk situation, although I suspect he communicated with Kim Ki-choon. Suh is someone who knows how to communicate with Cheong Wa Dae,” a political science professor said, wishing to remain anonymous.
Moon was the president’s second choice for replacing Prime Minister Chung Hong-won. However, he withdrew his name in disgrace amid widespread resistance from civic, religious and political groups.
“It’s unknown whether Kim knows how to communicate (with Cheong Wa Dae), but he opposed Moon based on his own judgment. He even opposed Kim Ki-choon. If Kim wins, he will even be able to oppose Cheong Wa Dae, depending on the situation,” the professor said.
Regardless of projections and survey results, Kim and Suh each view themselves as the only one suited to lead the conservatives for the next two years.
The new chairman will be tasked with easing frosty interparty relations and with helping President Park, who has been referred to as a “lame duck” less than 18 months into her term due in part to a series of misguided personnel selections.
The new chairman will also exert significant influence on the party’s candidate nominations for the next general elections in 2016.
With much at stake, Kim and Suh have engaged in an escalating war of words reminiscent of ruling-opposition party feuds.
Suh accused Kim of attempting to capitalize on the drop in President Park’s approval ratings.
“Pushing the Park Geun-hye administration into lame duck (status) and claiming that he will become the ‘successor of the regime’ is illogical and foolish,” Suh said at a press conference late last month.
Suh’s comments appeared to be aimed at Kim’s earlier comments that the Park Geun-hye administration has in part become mired in “self-righteousness.”
Kim, for his part, claims that a “pro-Park heavyweight,” apparently referring to Suh, has threatened to undermine him.
By Choi He-suk and Jung Hunny