Rep. Lee Nak-yon, chairman of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, has faced myriad challenges to consolidate his foothold in the liberal party and prove his mettle as a presidential candidate.
His return to the partisan politics had been smooth sailing after serving as prime minister under the liberal Moon Jae-in government, winning a seat in the Jongno district in central Seoul -- a symbolic constituency in Korean politics -- and becoming leader of the ruling party.
But his first month in office put his leadership to the test with the party’s internal struggle that led to the departures of two lawmakers and North Korea’s shooting of a South Korean civilian that invited public skepticism over the government’s inter-Korean policy of reconciliation.
According to the latest poll conducted by Realmeter, public support for the Democratic Party stood at 34.1 percent, with the main opposition People Power Party trailing at 28.9 percent. The survey released on Monday showed that the two parties lost 1.1 percent points and 0.4 percent points, respectively, from a week earlier.
Lee had been a leading contender to succeed President Moon Jae-in for 11 months until June this year but his popularity fizzled with the rise of his outspoken rival.
The latest survey data released on Sept. 20 showed that he was tied with Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung in a poll of preferred candidates for the next presidential election in 2022.
The ruling party has managed to maintain a 5 percentage point gap with its rival for two consecutive weeks, but the gap shows weakening support from the voters who granted 180 parliamentary seats out of 300 to the liberal party in the general election in April.
On the positive side, Lee‘s crisis management skill shone through while dealing with COVID-19 and a doctors’ strike.
He played his role in a passage of the fourth extra budget bill, which was designed to give emergency handouts to low-income earners and small merchants hit by a resurgence of the new coronavirus, in just 11 days after the government submitted the plan.
On Sept. 4, the ruling party managed to reach a deal with trainee doctors to end their monthlong strike by suggesting a reconsideration of the government’s medical reform plan that aimed at boosting the number of medical students in the country.
But the efforts he has made since taking office have often been eclipsed by partisan conflicts over Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and other lawmakers in trouble.
Allegations that Choo’s son was given special treatment during his military service in 2017 have become a point of contention in the National Assembly, even as Lee has urged lawmakers to wait for the result of an ongoing investigation by state prosecutors.
His leadership gained public favor for taking decisive action to expel Rep. Kim Hong-gul, the youngest son of late former President Kim Dae-jung who was engulfed in controversy over underreporting wealth and refusing to cooperate with a party investigation.
Other incidents involving the party’s lawmakers also put his management skills to the test, including with Rep. Lee Sang-jik, the founder of budget carrier Eastar Jet, who decided to leave the party amid a probe into unpaid wages and mass layoffs at the airline.
Public uproar over North Korea’s killing of a South Korean civil servant who drifted across the countries’ maritime border also put the party under pressure.
The opposition party criticized the ruling party for backing down from its stern stance toward Pyongyang after the North’s leader Kim Jong-un issued an apology.
“Lee Nak-yon tries to get away with the issue by saying that the party will create an in-house investigation team,” People Power Party Floor Leader Rep. Joo Ho-young said Monday, while demanding a parliamentary investigation and session to question government officials.
By Park Han-na (email@example.com