S. Korea opposition party picks young chief

36-year-old Harvard grad's election seen to signal impending generational shift in politics

Mr Lee Jun-seok, the new chairman of South Korea's main opposition People Power Party, waving the party's flag at its headquarters in Seoul after his election victory yesterday. Mr Lee, who has won the hearts of young people angry about widening ineq
Mr Lee Jun-seok, the new chairman of South Korea's main opposition People Power Party, waving the party's flag at its headquarters in Seoul after his election victory yesterday. Mr Lee, who has won the hearts of young people angry about widening inequality, beat four political veterans.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Harvard graduate Lee Jun-seok, 36, has been elected the youngest leader of South Korea's main opposition People Power Party (PPP), in what is viewed as an impending generational shift in politics as young people become more vocal and demand more change in the country.

Mr Lee was elected yesterday during the conservative party's national convention, beating four political veterans including four-term lawmaker Na Kyung-won, 57, and five-term lawmaker Joo Ho-young, 61.

Mr Lee won 43.8 per cent of the votes, while Ms Na came in second with 37.1 per cent.

In his acceptance speech, Mr Lee stressed the need for old guards and young politicians to co-exist and make continual efforts to keep the administration of President Moon Jae-in in check.

"Our supreme task is winning the next presidential election," said Mr Lee, who will chair the PPP for two years. "We will change and transform ourselves and eventually win. Please join us on the road to change the world."

President Moon congratulated Mr Lee on his win, telling the younger man over the phone that he had "achieved a great feat" and that his victory signalled imminent transformation in South Korean politics.

Mr Lee has been dominating headlines for weeks after entering the race for the party leadership.

Handpicked by impeached former president Park Geun-hye to join politics a decade ago, Mr Lee failed three times to win in parliamentary elections but has since become a political star.

Political observers coined the term "Lee Jun-seok wind" to describe his meteoric rise.

Mr Lee has spoken up against injustice and double standards in the country and won the hearts of young people who are angry about widening inequality.

Many of the young are disillusioned with the ruling Democratic Party (DP), which they hold responsible for failed policies that led to skyrocketing property prices and rising youth unemployment.

Gallup Korea recently ranked Mr Lee fourth in a poll on the most suitable next leader for the country, after Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung, former prosecutor-general Yoon Seok-youl and former Democratic Party leader Lee Nak-yon.

Mr Lee Jun-seok will not be able to run in next year's presidential race as the Constitution stipulates that a presidential candidate must be at least 40 years old.

But there have been calls for the charter to be amended to allow for younger candidates.

The minor opposition Justice Party even called the minimum age a "discriminatory and unfair rule".

Experts said Mr Lee's election came at an opportune time, giving the PPP a much-needed boost ahead of next year's presidential election. A Realmeter poll earlier this week placed the PPP's approval rating at 40.1 per cent - higher than the DP's 28.6 per cent.

Political science professor Kim Jae-chun of Sogang University pointed out that it was "really unprecedented in South Korean politics for a young guy in his 30s without any parliamentary experience to become the leader of the dominant opposition party".

It could be a strong signal that the opposition is taking a reformist stance and getting rid of old politics, hence triggering a much-needed generational shift, he added.

"Lee Jun-seok can dust off this old politics and appeal to median voters who are unhappy with the Moon Jae-in government but hesitant to support the opposition, known for old guards in their 60s and 70s who went to Gwanghwamun, asking for the release of Park Geun-hye, calling her imprisonment political revenge," Professor Kim told The Straits Times.

He was referring to Gwanghwamun Plaza, a space directly in front of the main Gyeongbok Palace, which is the most popular spot for protesters because of its proximity to the presidential Blue House.

Prof Kim also expects Mr Lee to mobilise the youth vote in the upcoming presidential election, adding that he would form a "very powerful combination" with Mr Yoon, who is widely expected to join the PPP to run for the nation's top office.

Mr Yoon is a hot favourite for the presidency as he is deemed to be an icon of justice, having played a big role in impeaching Park and later fighting against the Moon administration's unfair policies.

Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong, who is also from the PPP, said the Lee Jun-seok phenomenon represents "the people's desire for regime shift and change".

"It is the cry of the young generation who demand fair competition and work opportunities," he said.

Columnist Hong Chan-sik said Mr Lee's popularity was based on the frustrations of those in their 20s and 30s who feel the future is bleak, with little sign of hope.

"The Lee Jun-seok wind will evolve into a bigger typhoon ahead of next year's presidential election. How that will turn out depends on which political party can get on the winds of change and show a vision for it," he wrote in the Sky Daily news portal.

"We are now at an important political crossroads," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2021, with the headline 'S. Korea opposition party picks young chief'. Subscribe