The conservative main opposition People Power Party’s primary race to choose its candidate for next year’s presidential election has gotten off to a rough start.
The ceremony, held Sunday to officially kick off the race with presidential contenders committing themselves to fair competition, only exposed the party’s lingering internal discord.
Four of the dozen contenders boycotted the event in a show of their discontent with a bid by the intraparty election management committee to change the rules of the primary.
The committee pushed to introduce a clause that would have excluded supporters of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea from being allowed to join opinion polls to select the party’s presidential candidate. The move came amid concerns that those affiliated with the liberal ruling party might intentionally support a candidate with less chance of winning the presidential election in March.
Presidential hopefuls of the People Power Party were split on whether to introduce the clause.
Former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, who has a stronger backing from party members and a bloc of conservative voters, was in favor of the measure.
But Rep. Hong Joon-pyo and a few others argued that it would give Yoon the advantage and hamper efforts to draw more attention to the primary.
The election committee’s head, Chung Hong-won, offered to resign Sunday in the face of a backlash against the envisioned clause. Hours later he withdrew his resignation after meeting with party chief Lee Jun-seok, who persuaded Chung to stay on.
In a meeting later in the day, the committee decided not to introduce the controversial clause. Instead committee members agreed to include party members in the first public opinion poll to cut off half of the contenders. In the second poll, the one to select the party’s final presidential candidate, there would be a question on the competitiveness of those on the shortlist.
Hong and other runners who squared off against the election committee grudgingly accepted the compromise but still shunned attending Sunday’s ceremony.
During the event, Chung urged the party’s presidential runners to respect whatever decisions the election committee made.
But there still remains the possibility of discord erupting again over the specific management of the race.
Further internal wrangling risks disappointing and losing support from voters frustrated with the arbitrary and ineffective way that President Moon Jae-in’s government has handled the tasks facing the country.
The People Power Party won landslide victories in April’s mayoral by-elections in the country’s two largest cities -- Seoul and Busan -- on the back of voters’ mounting discontent with rising unemployment, soaring housing prices, the slow-paced rollout of coronavirus vaccines and corruption scandals involving Moon’s associates.
A poll of about 1,000 voters conducted last week showed 49.8 percent of them wanted to see a change of government after the next presidential election, while 42.7 percent were in favor of the ruling party retaining power. The gap has been considerably reduced from an overwhelming disparity shown in polls shortly after the mayoral by-elections. The numbers could even be reversed depending on what unfolds down the road.
The internal discord in the major opposition party is in sharp contrast with the ruling party moving ahead with its presidential primary contest in a smooth manner. Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung has secured a dominant lead in the initial stage of the race, finishing well ahead of other contenders in the first two rounds of regional votes over the weekend.
The People Power Party cannot rely on voters’ disappointment with the Moon government alone to retake power in the upcoming presidential vote.
Its candidates should set aside their shortsighted interests in primary race rules and instead focus on suggesting a long-term vision to move the country forward by enhancing national unity and economic competitiveness. In the eyes of many moderate voters as well as the opposition’s supporters, such efforts are all the more necessary as the ruling party’s front-runner Lee has driven his campaign with a broad range of populist spending programs that would further aggravate the country’s fiscal conditions.