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Ruling party leadership race descends into proxy presidential approval vote

March 5, 2023 - 17:46 By Kim Arin
Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo (left) and Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon sit next to each other at a pre-convention event on Feb. 7. (The Korea Herald)

The race to be the new chairperson of the ruling People Power Party is turning into a contest between candidates who have President Yoon Suk Yeol’s apparent backing and those who do not.

Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo, the three-time presidential contender who is now vying to lead the People Power Party, said Sunday he was competing on an “uneven playing field,” citing the latest allegations of the presidential office’s behind-the-scenes push for another leading candidate, Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon.

Online conversations revealed to the press for the first time on Friday showed some participants identified as presidential staffers engaging in a group chat with the ruling party’s supporters, where they allegedly shared messages vilifying Ahn while rallying for Kim.

The Ahn campaign believes there are several such group chats that have been created by the same two or three presidential staffers, based on news reports and tips from supporters.

“The presidential office ought to investigate the purpose of these group chats and how and why some of its staffers got involved,” Ahn’s head spokesperson, Lee Jong-chul, told reporters Sunday.

In what has essentially become a two-person race, Ahn is challenging Kim, the ruling party’s former floor leader who has campaigned on his ability to work closely with the president.

“The ruling party and the administration are one,” Kim said in press interviews. “Sometimes there are disagreements but we have to work them out, like married couples do.”

When Ahn tried to promote his contributions in the last presidential election won by Yoon, the presidential office immediately pushed back, with one senior official warning that the president should not be dragged into the party convention in a closed-door briefing.

In a press conference Sunday, Ahn said that as someone who helped Yoon to achieve victory, his treatment by Kim, and some individuals at the presidential office was “unbecoming.”

Ahn, who ran in the 2022 presidential election as a third party candidate, dropped out mid-race to support Yoon against the then-Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung. Yoon went on to beat Lee by a margin of just 0.73 percent.

Ahn said in the press conference that he believed it was not the president but “some of the staff working for the president” who were “tarnishing the integrity of the party’s election.”

“The president has said he does not endorse any particular lawmaker of our party and I take him at his words. Some of the people working for him, however, are hurting the party from working toward a common goal of winning the next general election,” he said.

Speaking on the controversy surrounding the anti-Ahn group chats, an official at the People Power Party election commission said it had to be determined whether the conversations were "private or public” in nature. The official added that the commission has yet to look into the issue as the Ahn campaign has not yet filed an official complaint.

The People Power Party convention, the first one to take place since Yoon took office, is heating up with voter turnout on the first day of the four-day election recording 34.7 percent on Saturday -- the highest in the history of the party’s conventions.

Yoon is set to attend the party convention on Wednesday.