Members of the Grand National Party’s new leadership, including chairman Hong Joon-pyo (second from left, front row), visit the national cemetery in Seoul on Tuesday, a day after the party convention. (Yonhap News)
The recent election of Hong Joon-pyo, a non-mainstream lawmaker close to President Lee Myung-bak’s in-house rival, as the new ruling party leader may make Lee an early lame duck, political observers said Tuesday.
Hong, a veteran legislator loyal to Park Geun-hye, was elected chairman of the Grand National party through a national convention poll Monday, indicating that Park’s political influence was already prevailing over the conservative party.
Park is considered the frontrunner for next year’s presidential elections, enjoying steady support among varying age groups and regions. Park, who vied for the presidency against Lee in the GNP presidential nomination race four years ago, is the daughter of ex-President Park Chung-hee and already leads one-third of the GNP as the party’s former chairwoman.
“It would be fair to say that the president has effectively lost his power over the party,” Kim Jae-won, another lawmaker close to Park, told a radio interview Tuesday.
“It seems that party members together felt the need for a different power structure and strategy to put up a good fight in the general elections next year,” he added. “Chairman Hong’s strong ties to former chairwoman Park apparently showed members the chance of such change.”
The GNP, which currently occupies 171 seats in the 299-member unicameral legislature, has been struggling to regain popularity after its April by-election loss and ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections next year. Coupled with the dwindling popularity of the right wing Lee government, the ruling party has been suffering from a poor voter sentiment due to its seemingly lackluster efforts to improve the job market and stabilize consumer prices. Lee’s single five-year term will end in early 2013.
“I have to admit the power balance has shifted to the pro-Park faction,” said Nam Kyung-pil, who joined the GNP Supreme Council via Monday’s election as a leading member of the party’s reformist group.
“This may only be a natural procedure as (Park’s) future power is becoming more real and certain.
“Party members were looking for someone who can draw a clear line between the Lee Myung-bak faction and its policies,” another party insider said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“The president’s political isolation may accelerate.”
While the 57-year-old Hong garnered 41,166 votes in Monday’s elections ― in which some 210,000 party members cast ballots ― Yoo Seung-min, another close confidant of Park’s, came second with 32,157 votes, according to the party’s election commission. Won Hee-ryong, one of the key members of the pro-Lee faction, barely made it onto the Supreme Council by taking fourth place in the race.
On the surface, the new GNP leader is vowing non-factional politics by embracing all in-house rivals and has also promised he would not “hamper” President Lee’s reform agenda in the remainder of his term.
“I will try to harmonize with the presidential office,” he had said earlier, vowing to make the GNP a “strong, genuine conservative party.”
Observers expect, however, the prosecutor-turned-politician to bring about big changes ahead of the large-scale polls next year with a vision quite different from Lee.
Hong formerly served as head of a special parliamentary committee formed to discuss ways of relieving the financial burden on mid and lower income households. During his acceptance speech Monday, the veteran legislator emphasized knowing well of the sufferings of these people “through his personal experiences.”
Former chairwoman Park has also been emphasizing policies focused on welfare and financial measures for lower income households.
The two, however, have shown differences over several controversial issues in the past, including the so-called Sejong administrative city plan to move government offices to the central Chungcheong region and the principle of the party leadership being separate from the presidency.
Whether the two can put aside their differences will determine the course of the GNP ahead of the polls in 2012, analysts say.
By Shin Hae-in (email@example.com)