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(News Focus) Debate heats up over potential Saenuri presidential contenders

2016/08/10 17:09

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Aug. 10 (Yonhap) -- Following the Saenuri Party's leadership election, a debate is heating up over how its results will affect those mentioned as the ruling party's potential standard-bearers for next year's presidential vote, political observers said Wednesday.

At its national convention in Seoul on Tuesday, the Saenuri Party elected Rep. Lee Jung-hyun, a stalwart loyalist to President Park Geun-hye, and five members of the party's decision-making Supreme Council.

The election of the new leadership is largely seen as a boost for party members closely affiliated with Park, called the "pro-Park faction," while it is considered a dispiriting setback for the "non-Park faction" and to a lesser extent "neutrals," pundits said.

Barring any unforeseen mishaps, the new leadership, comprised mostly of those closely allied with the president, will steer the party through the presidential election in December next year. This raises the possibility that a candidate favored by the country's chief executive or pro-Park elements would likely lock in the Saenuri's presidential nomination, analysts predicted.

Park is believed to command the loyalty of more than 70 out of the total 129 Saenuri lawmakers, observers said.

"The outcome of the Saenuri leadership election underscores that the pro-Park faction wields substantial clout in the party, which makes it very difficult for any candidate that is opposed by these members from winning the party's ticket for the presidential office," said Kim Hyung-joon, a politics professor at Myongji University.

Now, keen attention is being drawn to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whom the pro-Park group has been striving to court at a time when it has no other figure to field for in the critical race for the country's top election post.

This graphic, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and new Saenuri Party leader Lee Jung-hyun. (Yonhap) This graphic, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and new Saenuri Party leader Lee Jung-hyun. (Yonhap)

Ban, whose second five-year term as U.N. chief ends late this year, has long been talked about as an odds-on contender for the presidential election. Even though he has refused to discuss such a possibility, he has never ruled it out, either.

Various opinion polls have shown Ban ahead of other potential presidential contenders from the opposition bloc such as Moon Jae-in, former leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea (MPK), and Ahn Cheol-soo, former co-chair of the minor opposition People's Party.

"As long as he is willing to run in the election and has no critical defects as the party's flag-bearer, Ban, heavily favored by the pro-Park group, is arguably the most likely candidate to get the nomination," said political analyst Jun Kye-wan.

With Ban mentioned as a formidable presidential contender, speculation has been rising that the ruling party may seek to win in next year's election by rallying support from both the country's southeastern region of Gyeongsang, its traditional support base, and the central Chungcheong region, largely considered politically neutral.

Ban hails from Chungcheong, where voters have been long been pushing to make one of their own the country's president.

Other would-be presidential contenders in the ruling party include Reps. Kim Moo-sung and Yoo Seong-min, former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong, all of whom are considered part of the non-Park faction.

The outcome of the latest leadership election is seen as a particularly painful body blow to former party chief Kim, who had joined a vocal campaign to back Rep. Joo Ho-young who was defeated by Lee Jung-hyun in the polls.

Given its two-year term, the new leadership, dominated by the pro-Park faction, will be tasked to engage in the process of setting the rules to nominate the party's presidential nominee, such as those related to the selection of party delegates -- a reason why observers say the party's primary race could be more favorable for a pro-Park candidate.

However, some political watchers warned that the ruling party could face intense division should one dominant faction wield inordinate influence in the candidate selection process -- a development that would disappoint voters and could lead to the party's electoral debacle. It was intense infighting that led to Saenuri's defeat in the April 13 parliamentary elections.

"There are chances that some ruling party lawmakers, who may be upset about the pro-Park faction's dominant position in the party, could bolt and form a third political entity, perhaps a centrist party (to field their own candidate for the presidential election)," said Jun.

Whoever may be picked as the party's presidential nominee, what is critical for Saenuri going forward is to galvanize the interest of voters going into the party's primary race, some Saenuri officials said.

They pointed out that public attention may shift to the opposition and to such bigwigs as Moon, Ahn and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who is seen by many as having presidential ambitions.

"What is the point of intramural competition over who will clinch the party nomination? What matters is how to bring back public attention that may be centered on opposition presidential aspirants," a ruling party official told Yonhap News Agency, declining to be identified.

As part of a broader plan to revive interest in the party and overcome voter apathy, new party leader Lee has stressed the need to employ an open competition scheme that requires the party's presidential contenders to reach out to voters to win their support.

This photo, taken in March 2013, shows President Park Geun-hye (L) and Rep. Lee Jung-hyun posing for a photo at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae. (Yonhap) This photo, taken in March 2013, shows President Park Geun-hye (L) and Rep. Lee Jung-hyun posing for a photo at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae. (Yonhap)