South Korea’s ruling party bets on protest figure

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THEAST WEEK the campaign for Lee Jae-myung, who on October 10 was nominated as the ruling Minjoo party’s candidate for president of South Korea, released a striking pair of old photographs. One shows a soft-haired boy in his early teens in an oversized, ill-fitting worker’s uniform. In the other, a boy of the same age wears a well-cut blue jacket with an ironed white collar and a thin red bow tie, his hair neatly cropped.

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The first photo is of Mr. Lee; the second from Yoon Seok-youl, his most likely conservative opponent in the March presidential election. The question posed by the pictures is clear. Who should run the country, the self-made man of the people or the pampered son of a professor?

Denigrating privileges is hardly an original political strategy. In South Korea, this may seem like a particularly tired argument for an aspiring president. After all, the country has been ruled for four years by the left-wing administration of President Moon Jae-in, who took office following a wave of outrage against a corrupt conservative establishment.

Still, Mr Lee, 56, has managed to exploit the political atmosphere. Voters are unhappy with the current government’s failure to deliver on promises to curb soaring housing costs and revive the pandemic-stricken economy. The opposition, hampered by a series of embarrassing blunders, including Mr. Yoon’s alleged connections to shamans, one of whom is an anal acupuncturist, failed to capitalize on the discontent. Mr Lee, who promises to tackle his predecessor’s unfulfilled commitments in his own way, currently leads the polls despite representing the ruling party.

Mr. Lee, who has few supporters in the party establishment, has risen to prominence over the past decade championing unorthodox social policies. These have been popular with voters in South Korea, which suffers from persistent youth unemployment, expensive housing and high rates of relative poverty among the elderly, but spends only 12.2% of GDP on social benefits, just over half of the average for rich countries.

During two four-year terms as mayor of Seongnam, a city of about 1 million people in Gyeonggi Province near Seoul, the capital, M. school uniforms while improving the city’s finances saddled with debt thanks to budget cuts and better tax collection. When he was elected governor of Gyeonggi, South Korea’s most populous province, in 2018, he applied many of these policies to its 13.5 million people. If elected president, he promises to introduce a nationwide universal basic income, extend credit to the poor and build more social housing.

Critics question the financial viability of its platform, including basic national income. Yet the pandemic has bolstered support for more generous social protection policies in the country, and Mr Lee has a reputation for effectiveness. His experience, which he likes to remind voters on an almost daily basis, has also helped. Born into a poor farming family in Andong, the conservative heart of South Korea, the fifth of seven children, he left school at the age of 12 to work in a factory, where his arm was taken in a press, permanently damaging it. He enrolled in night school and got a scholarship to study law. Like many other Minjoo politicians, including Mr. Moon, he spent years as a human rights lawyer and activist for left-wing causes before officially entering politics.

His talent for political stunts also bolstered his image. After being elected mayor of Seongnam, he moved his office from the ninth to the second floor to be closer to “people below,” as he recalls in his autobiography. This spring, he forced all foreign residents in the province to get tested for covid-19, sticking to the plan despite accusations it was xenophobic and discriminatory against migrants. The voters loved it.

Mr. Lee is no fool. Several former associates have been arrested in recent weeks in connection with a sprawling corruption scandal involving real estate investments in Seongnam, the origins of which can be traced back to his tenure as mayor. The fallout almost cost him his victory in the primary. Mr Lee has denied all allegations he was involved and vowed to cooperate with an upcoming parliamentary audit. The opposition will pray that the hero of the working class ultimately turns out to be part of the corrupt establishment.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Heroes of the Working Class”


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