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(News Focus) Daunting challenges lie ahead for new Saenuri leadership

2016/08/09 22:00

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Aug. 9 (Yonhap) -- Fresh from its election victory on Tuesday, the new leadership of the ruling Saenuri Party faces an array of daunting challenges, including shoring up public trust and fostering unity in a party long beset by factional feuds that have hurt it in the eyes of voters, analysts said.

At a national convention in Seoul the party elected Rep. Lee Jung-hyun, a third-term lawmaker loyal to President Park Geun-hye, as its new leader, and chose five new members of the party's decision-making Supreme Council. The appointment of the party's leadership to replace the interim one is seen as step in the right direction and comes when Saenuri needs to pull itself together and put up a united front.

The biggest challenge for the new cadre of leaders comes from ever-simmering factional strife, which analysts have cited as part of the reason why the ruling party lost in the April general elections and the public remained largely apathetic about the party's leadership race.

"At the moment, addressing factional conflicts would be the most crucial issue for the new leadership to tackle as we have witnessed relentless spats between different party factions before and during the leadership election," said Lee Chung-hee, politics professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

"Now the new party is in dire need of the kind of leadership that promotes party unity and harmony."


New Saenuri Party leader Lee Jung-hyun waves the party's flag during the party's national convention at Jamsil Indoor Stadium in Seoul on Aug. 9, 2016. (Yonhap) New Saenuri Party leader Lee Jung-hyun waves the party's flag during the party's national convention at Jamsil Indoor Stadium in Seoul on Aug. 9, 2016. (Yonhap)

Factional fissures were laid bare during the grueling leadership race that pitted the the newly elected party chairman -- from the "pro-Park" faction -- against those classified as belonging to the "non-Park" faction, or "neutrals," with no ties to any of the two rival factions.

Public apathy towards the Saenuri leadership contest, seen as a prelude to the party's in-house race for a presidential nomination, reflects the degree to which citizens have been displeased with the party's persistent factional discord, analysts said.

The president herself voiced concerns over the elusive task of overcoming internal strife.

"(The goal of regaining) trust from citizens would be far-fetched if we cannot stand united and if we hate, criticize and distrust one another," Park said earlier in the day during her congratulatory remarks at the party convention.

Another major task for the new leadership is reshaping the party-government relationship, which has long been seen as "vertical," with the president exerting inconspicuous yet considerable influence on party affairs, analysts said.

The two-way relationship should be turned into a more "horizontal one" so that the party can more actively pursue its own policy platforms that would help win back the minds of citizens, observers pointed out.

"The new party leadership should ponder how to play a positive role as a coordinator that helps the Park administration stably manage state affairs by talking tough to the president rather than just upholding the wishes of the chief executive," said political analysts Jun Kye-wan.

Forging cooperative ties with the opposition bloc is another challenging task given that the ruling party no longer maintains a majority in the 300-seat National Assembly.

Currently, the Saenuri Party holds 129 seats, well shy of a majority, meaning it needs to secure backing from the opposition parties to pass bills.

"On various issues, including the passage of the government's extra budget proposal, the ruling party needs support from the opposition parties," said Lee Nae-young, a politics professor at Korea University. "Pursuing the politics of cooperation with the opposition bloc ... that is the message voters conveyed to the ruling party during the April parliamentary elections."

   The passage of the 11 trillion won (US$9.92 billion) extra budget, in particular, is something that the new leadership must tackle as Seoul pushes forward industrywide restructuring efforts and strives to create new jobs when the national economy is expected to grow at a slower pace than previously anticipated.

Gearing the party towards winning next year's presidential election will be another major task for the new leadership, though any unforeseen mishap could cut short its term and spare it from the Herculean task.

The preparations for a presidential election, which may include a personnel overhaul to shore up public trust, are always fraught with bitter in-house rivalries that could reopen cracks in the already fractured party, observers pointed out.

"If the leadership were to fail to handle the problems that could flare up in the process of the presidential candidate nomination, the party could suffer yet another serious confusion," Jun said. "How to craft a fair, democratic primary process could be a challenge for the leadership."


The ruling Saenuri Party's national convention is underway at a stadium in Seoul on Aug. 9, 2016. (Yonhap) The ruling Saenuri Party's national convention is underway at a stadium in Seoul on Aug. 9, 2016. (Yonhap)