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Ruling party sets sail without chairman under penalization

Lee Jun-seok stays silent after early vows to promptly fight back

Rep. Kweon Seong-dong, floor leader of the ruling People Power Party, walks to a conference room inside the National Assembly to oversee the first meeting of senior party officials Monday as the acting party chairman. (Joint Press Corps)
Rep. Kweon Seong-dong, floor leader of the ruling People Power Party, walks to a conference room inside the National Assembly to oversee the first meeting of senior party officials Monday as the acting party chairman. (Joint Press Corps)
South Korea’s ruling People Power Party started the week without Chairman Lee Jun-seok, apologizing for President Yoon Suk-yeol’s low ratings and making clear it will respect the decision the internal ethics panel issued Thursday.

Rep. Kweon Seong-dong, floor leader of the ruling party, oversaw his first senior party officials’ meeting as acting party chairman on Monday, apologizing for the party’s internal turmoil and dimming support for the Yoon administration.

In a Realmeter poll of 2,525 voters conducted from Monday to Friday last week, 37 percent of respondents positively rated Yoon’s performance, while 57 percent negatively viewed Yoon’s handling of affairs. The polling agency said the dip in ratings reflected the ongoing turmoil within the ruling party.

It is the first time the president’s approval rating fell below 40 percent from a Realmeter survey since he took office in early May.

“Various reform measures could not be delivered due to the party’s internal problems and caused a significant burden to the handling of state affairs,” Kweon said in the meeting. “We have caused grave concerns in people. This is very unfortunate, and we would like to apologize.”

Kweon added that under his leadership, the party will promptly end the internal power struggle, upholding the internal ethics panel’s decision last week to suspend Lee’s party membership for six months. It was a landmark decision as the first ever to suspend an incumbent party chair.

While acknowledging that Lee was instrumental in helping the party win two critical elections in a row, Kweon urged Lee to comply with the decision, as “election victories are earned by the people as opposed to an individual’s popularity and flair.”

Lee vowed to fight the ruling with legal proceedings, claiming he has 10 days to make his case to the party before the penalization is officially imposed, warning he would file a complaint with a local court to prevent the penalization.

He added that the party’s bylaws dictate that penalty decisions coming from the ethics panel have to be signed by the incumbent chair in a meeting with senior party officials to be officiated, citing that there exists no clause on how the procedure must be done if the chair is the subject of the penalty.

Yet Kweon told reporters Friday that he will start working as the acting chairman and has the authority to oversee the final meeting to officiate the penalization. People Power Party legislators on Monday afternoon agreed to have Kweon officially take control of the party, effectively signaling an end to the era of Lee‘s leadership.

The chairman has faced allegations of receiving sexual favors as well as bribes worth 11.5 million won ($8,800) from a business owner in 2013. Lee was then a member of the emergency steering committee for the Grand National Party, the predecessor of the People Power Party.

Lee accused the ethics panel of working on behalf of the “pro-Yoon circle.” He said members of the circle controlled the panel to draft a penalization that would oust him from the chair seat after he announced the launch of a special committee to overhaul nomination guidelines for the next general elections in 2024.

Kweon is considered one of the core members of the pro-Yoon circle.

The ruling party is expected to see competition among its members intensify on who will succeed Lee as the next chairman and lead strategies and nominations for the general elections. Kweon said the party will not hold the next national convention early, saying it will hold it as scheduled in June 2023.

Many political heavyweights are touted to join the competition, including some from the pro-Yoon circle.

A PNR poll of 1,019 adults nationwide conducted Saturday found Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo in the lead to be the next chairman for the ruling party with support at 25.1 percent, followed by former lawmaker Na Kyung-won at 12.6 percent.

Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon, former floor leader of the ruling party, came in third with 7 percent, and Kweon placed fourth with 4.5 percent. Unification Minister Kwon Young-se, Rep. Bae Hyun-jin and Rep. Chung Jin-suk were also touted as possible candidates in the survey.

Many experts and officials expected that Lee would immediately fight back against the ethics panel’s ruling, yet he has maintained silence over the weekend.

He reportedly held meetings with key aides, some party officials and legal experts over the weekend to strategize what approaches to take in response to the penalization. It was not known as of press time if Lee would make any announcements on his future plans by the end of Monday.

If Lee is eventually deposed as chair, the special committee he launched to reform nomination guidelines will likely lose momentum and could be closed by the party leadership. The committee’s launch was widely seen as a threat to traditional heavyweights’ chances of reelection.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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