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Mayor Lee steps into limelight amid Choi scandal

While President Park Geun-hye’s political fortunes have fallen drastically over a nepotism scandal involving her confidante Choi Soon-sil, one presidential aspirant is seeing a major boost: Seongnam City Mayor Lee Jae-myung.

A firebrand of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, Lee was the first politician to demand the resignation and punishment of Park for letting her friend Choi meddle in state affairs.

Local polls released Thursday showed the outspoken politician ranked third among presidential hopefuls, behind the Democratic Party’s leader Moon Jae-in and the United Nation’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. 

Seongnam City Mayor Lee Jae-myung (Yonhap)
Seongnam City Mayor Lee Jae-myung (Yonhap)

For the first time in its survey of favored presidential candidates, pollster Realmeter put Lee at third place with an approval rating of 11.6 percent, 0.2 percentage point higher than that of centrist People’s Party leader Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo.

“We believe that Mayor Lee’s trademark, clear political messages have resonated with the young voters,” said Jung Hyun-bok, a senior researcher at Seoul-based local pollster Time research, whose poll also showed Monday that Lee was the third favorite presidential hopeful, behind Moon and Ban.

Lee has seen his popularity surge in proportion to the public anger mounting against the Choi scandal. In a poll conducted late in October when the scandal just broke out, Lee was the fifth favorite candidate and his approval rating stood at 5.9 percent – half of the current figure.

Since being elected as Seongnam mayor in 2010, Lee, a former lawyer with an activist background, has been thrust into the limelight with his overhaul of the city’s financial debt, contentious welfare policies for young people and unapologetic rhetoric against conservative politicians.

Throughout his tenure, Lee has driven budget cutbacks and anti-corruption efforts to pay down debts he inherited from his predecessor. In 2014, he announced that the city repaid 520 billion won ($440 million) of debt, on which he declared moratorium in 2010.

But Lee’s liberal-leaning welfare policies and political views have drawn mixed response across the political spectrum. His supporters and progressive voters hail him as a reformist politician, but some conservative and moderate voters dismiss him as a populist.

“Given that the current political dynamic is so flexible, we have to wait and see whether Lee can continue to capitalize on the political momentum created by the Choi scandal,” Jung said.

By Yeo Jun-suk (