People Power Party Chairman Lee Jun-seok speaks at a party meeting Monday. (Joint Press Corps)
The ruling People Power Party could see a possible shift in power dynamics Wednesday as Chairman Lee Jun-seok could be penalized by the internal ethics panel over sexual bribery allegations.
The ethics panel is scheduled to convene at 7 p.m. Wednesday to continue discussions on whether to penalize Lee for “failing to maintain dignity” and “coercing to destroy evidence” in relation to a sexual bribery case that is also under police investigation.
The panel may reach a decision that is independent from the outcome of the police investigation. Depending on the severity of the penalty, an intense feud over who would replace him as the next leader of the ruling bloc could ensue.
Four penalties -- a warning, party membership suspension, request to relinquish party membership and forced membership termination -- are possible.
Anything other than a warning is expected to cause intense turmoil among party members, and many speculate that a decision will not be easily reached. Members of the panel are said to be divided over whether to hand down a penalty in a case that has not even been fully investigated.
Lee has been under investigation after civic groups claimed that he received sexual favors as well as bribes worth 11.5 million won ($9,000) from a businessman in 2013 when he served as a member of the emergency steering committee for the Grand National Party.
The businessman allegedly bribed Lee to win favor of former President Park Geun-hye. Lee was then considered one of the closest figures to Park as the former president directly recruited Lee to join politics. The police will summon the businessman for questioning on Thursday.
Some have speculated that the ethics panel is opening the session Wednesday to finalize Lee’s penalty before any additional information from the police investigation is revealed. If police are unable to find conclusive evidence linking Lee to the case, the panel would find it difficult to penalize him, they argue.
Lee has already submitted documents and a statement claiming his innocence to the police when the case opened in January, firmly denying all allegations made against him. He accused the ethics panel of abusing its power to make a political decision and threatened to abolish it as chairman.
The ongoing tension stems from the conflict between traditional members of the conservative bloc and a group of newcomers, including Lee, seeking to bring reforms. Many have argued that Lee’s calls to overhaul the nomination procedures for key elections have escalated the conflict.
Upon scoring a landslide win in the local elections, Lee announced a new special committee to prepare for the next general elections in 2024. He appointed Rep. Choe Jae-hyeong to head the special committee based on his background as head of the state-run audit agency.
The unexpected move to overhaul nomination guidelines was seen as a threat to many traditional figures within the bloc, as some fear losing their seats and political power if new nomination guidelines do not work in their favor.
The ethics panel’s decision would determine which side the party leans toward and whether the party will remain under Lee’s leadership moving forward.
Lee’s position as the top leader of the ruling party could be undermined if any penalty is levied, but he would be forced to step down if anything above a warning is given. If his party membership is suspended, his term as chairman will also automatically be terminated.
Some have speculated that close aides of President Yoon Suk-yeol would attempt to take over the party if Lee is removed from the chairman post. They will go up against Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo who has clearly expressed an intent to succeed Lee as the next chairman.
While removing Lee will help traditional heavyweights retain their posts and keep the People Power Party as it originally stands, some say party support could take a hit, especially from fervent Lee supporters and men in their 20s and 30s, ahead of the legislative elections.
Men in their 20s and 30s have risen as powerful supporters of the conservative bloc after Lee helmed the party. They were critical in helping the People Power Party win two elections in a row.
Even if Lee loses the party chairman seat, he will likely stay in the conservative bloc and attempt to grow his support base. If no penalty is levied, Lee is expected to continue his drive for reform.