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Ruling party’s by-elections dilemma: Seoul and Busan ‘too big to let go’

Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung (Yonhap)
Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung (Yonhap)

The two vacant mayoral seats left behind by disgraced heavyweights from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea have put the party in a bind.

To field candidates for the posts in Seoul and Busan in by-elections next year, it will have to break its own rules and campaign promises. But the country’s two largest cities, with a combined population of over 13 million, are too big to lose.

The Seoul office has been vacant since Mayor Park Won-soon, who belonged to the ruling party, died earlier this month after his former secretary filed a sexual abuse complaint against him. The Busan mayoral office was vacated in April by Mayor Oh Keo-don, who stepped down from his post after admitting to having sexually harassed one of his subordinates.

New mayors to be selected in by-elections will hold the office for about a year and two months, until the general elections slated for June 2022.

The Democratic Party’s constitution states that if one of its elected officials loses a post due to serious misconduct, such as corruption or fraud, the party will not nominate a candidate for that constituency in a by-election.

To nominate candidates for the Seoul and Busan mayoral races, therefore, it would have to amend its constitution.

But practically conceding the two biggest cities to the opposition could have a negative impact on the ruling party’s chances in the 2022 presidential election. Party bigwigs have expressed a range of views on the matter.

Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung sparked debate Monday by asserting that the party should comply with its own constitution.

“Even a merchant has to risk financial loss to retain (clients’) trust. It is right to keep the promise as stipulated in the party constitution even if the damage is huge and painful,” he said in a radio interview with CBS.

Rep. Lee Nak-yon, who is leading public polls as the most favored presidential candidate, avoided direct comment when asked what action the party should take. “We still have much time left (before making a decision) and have a lot of things to do before that. I wonder if it is wise to argue about it,” he said Tuesday.

Party Chairman Lee Hae-chan also showed discomfort with Gov. Lee’s remarks.

“He shouldn’t have answered the question (from a radio host). We can decide whether to field candidates or not around year-end and hold a primary in February next year.”

Former Interior Minister Kim Boo-kyum, who announced earlier this month that he planned to run in the ruling party leadership election in August, said the party should push to revise its rules.

“Next year’s by-elections that will take place in the capital city of South Korea and the second-largest city will have a direct impact on the presidential election,” he said.

By Park Han-na (