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[Election Battlefield] ‘Mini presidential election’ unfolds in Incheon

Two presidential hopefuls square off in Gyeyang B constituency, cited as 2024 election highlight

April 1, 2024 - 18:46 By Kim Arin
EASTER BRINGS TOGETHER RIVALS -- Rep. Lee Jae-myung (left), chair of the Democratic Party of Korea, and Won Hee-ryong (right), former minister of land and transport for President Yoon Suk Yeol, attend an Easter service on March 31 at a Presbyterian church in Incheon’s Gyeyang-gu, where the two are running against each other in the B constituency for the April 10 general election. (Yonhap)

INCHEON -- In a district in Incheon, two potential presidential candidates are in a neck-and-neck race to secure a National Assembly seat on April 10.

The ruling People Power Party candidate is Won Hee-ryong, previously the minister of land and transport under President Yoon Suk Yeol. The 60-year-old was a candidate in the party’s presidential primary in 2021, and boasts a winning track record against Democratic Party of Korea rivals so far in all of the five elections he has run in.

He is rarely seen as a hard-line conservative, particularly as a two-time governor of Jeju Island, which has a history of leaning liberal.

Won faces Rep. Lee Jae-myung, the Democratic Party of Korea chair, who lost to Yoon in the 2022 presidential election by the narrowest-ever margin of 0.73 percent. Before he ran for president, he was governor of Gyeonggi Province, where his party enjoys a longstanding advantage.

In this election, he and his party are campaigning on the premise of keeping the incumbent administration in check, accusing the conservative president of “ruling like a dictator.”

When Won launched his bid in January, he was polling up to 16 percentage points behind Lee, who is the current lawmaker in the district. The current Democratic Party leader was elected there in a by-election two years ago, when the previous leader of the party, Song Young-gil, bowed out to run for Seoul mayor.

More recent polls show Won as still behind Lee, but the gap is now close to the margin of error. In a poll of 502 eligible voters in Gyeyang-gu, conducted March 25-26 by Gallup Korea, Lee showed support of 46 percent while Won’s stood at 42 percent.

(The Korea Herald)

On the narrowing gap, Won told The Korea Herald he believes it was his “sincere commitment to make change” that was helping him win the hearts of voters on what has been Democratic Party turf.

“As someone who served as the land and transport minister, I know I’m setting out meaningful policies that can actually be executed,” he said.

His signature policy is an unlimited pass for public transit in and out of Seoul, which is newly being implemented in the capital. In cities close to Seoul like Incheon, long commutes are a part of many people’s daily lives and transportation a major issue.

“Incheon overall, but particularly Gyeyang, has been left neglected by the Democratic Party lawmakers who held the district for the last two decades,” he said. “Incheon, being the host city for one of the best international airports in the world, has so much potential that is unfortunately still untapped. I can, and I will change it.”

Won said he decided to take on Lee in one of the toughest districts for conservatives, thinking that “it was time to end self-serving politics.” In six National Assembly elections held since 2000, just one candidate from the conservative bloc has been elected lawmaker in Gyeyang-gu.

The former land minister said the Democratic Party chief was “not serving the interests of the people of Gyeyang” while busy attending court dates. “It’s hard not to think Lee is using his seat on the National Assembly to protect himself from the criminal cases he is involved in,” he said, referring to immunity granted to sitting lawmakers from some criminal proceedings.

Lee is crying foul over the Seoul court setting his trial date just a day before the National Assembly election. “I respect the court’s decision, but my presence being needed at the court so close to the day of the election is a result of the prosecutors’ dictatorship,” he told reporters Friday, although the prosecution service has no say in the court’s choice of a date.

On the day the National Assembly election campaign season officially kicked off on March 28, the Democratic Party chief told a rally in Incheon that the upcoming election was about “showing Yoon that the people are in charge.”

“People’s lives are being shattered. Peace on the Korean Peninsula is being threatened. Our democracy, most importantly, is under attack,” he said. “Time is up. Let April 10 be a day of reckoning for Yoon.”

Gyeyang residents say while Lee himself may be unpopular, a conservative victory is still unlikely.

“I was disappointed with the way Lee weeded out candidates who aren’t aligned with him over the primaries. That is not democratic,” said a 71-year-old cab driver who described himself as a “lifetime Democratic Party voter.” “But I know Incheon. I’ve lived here for over 30 years. Not a lot of people are going to vote for the People Power Party,” he said.

A 30-year-old graduate school student said he was rooting for Won this time. “Lee has been our district lawmaker for the last two years but you rarely ever see him around. I think it’s time to give the other party a chance, although I don’t know if they stand much chance here,” he said.