South Korea ruling party seeks to stem infighting with new chief

New Saenuri party chief Lee Jung Hyun has pledged to reform the party structure, bring back public confidence and pave the way to victory in the upcoming presidential election.
New Saenuri party chief Lee Jung Hyun has pledged to reform the party structure, bring back public confidence and pave the way to victory in the upcoming presidential election.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

SEOUL • South Korea's ruling party has picked a lawmaker loyal to President Park Geun Hye as leader after a rowdy convention that highlighted Ms Park's struggle to combat her lame duck status with less than 18 months until the next presidential election.

The Saenuri party elected Ms Park's former aide Lee Jung Hyun as chairman in a divisive party election late on Tuesday. The vote pitted her backers against a growing cadre of critics who blame the President for the party's woes - including its poor showing in April's general election - and its weakening grip on power.

The meeting highlights the need for Ms Park to stem the infighting to get some momentum for her economic agenda in the National Assembly.

Due to step down after a single term, Ms Park's promised reforms of the labour market, and her pledges to boost the service industries and enhance cyber security have failed to get support in Parliament at a time when the economy has been squeezed by falling exports and rising unemployment.

Mr Lee is the first lawmaker from South Jeolla province, a stronghold for more liberal-leaning elements within Saenuri, to lead the conservative party. He won the party post with 41 per cent of the vote to see off three other candidates.

"I declare that from this moment no pro-Park or non-Park factions shall exist," Mr Lee said during his acceptance speech.

"I will reform the party structure and bring back public confidence and pave the way to victory in the upcoming presidential election."

Stressing the importance of party support, Ms Park made a surprise appearance at Tuesday's convention held at an indoor baseball stadium, urging the 10,000 members in attendance to stand together as "I spend the reminder of my term in office to lay the foundation for another great leap forward".

"Politics should be changed," Ms Park said, to a scattering of applause.

Divisions within the party widened after the April elections, where Saenuri confounded pre-vote forecasts by failing to gain a majority. Instead of the 180 seats as some Korean media had projected, the party was reduced to 122 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly.

Ms Park's hard-line stance on nuclear-armed neighbour North Korea failed to sway voters while a slumping economy may have weighed on her support.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'South Korea ruling party seeks to stem infighting with new chief'. Print Edition | Subscribe