Lee Jae-myung became the presidential candidate for South Korea’s ruling party yesterday, hoping to overcome a property scandal and gather national support.
Lee, governor of Gyeonggi province and a party outsider often critical of incumbent President Moon Jae-in, sealed his victory in the primary to represent the Democratic Party in the March 9 presidential election.
Moon cannot stand for re-election under Korean law.
The leading contender among a fractured field from the main conservative People Power Party, Yoon Seok-youl, has been caught up in scandals of his own — including murky ties to an acupuncturist — and criticism he relies on fortune-tellers.
“It used to be at most a single candidate who had such scandals, but the top two frontrunners are both embroiled in scandals in this election, which shows South Korea is regressing politically,” Lee Jun-han, professor of political science at Incheon National University.
Lee secured 50.29% of the votes in an 11-round primary that ended yesterday.
His closest rival and initially the establishment favourite, former prime minister Lee Nak-yon, finished with 39.14%. His outsider image was once seen as a liability in the face of establishment competitors with closer ties to the outgoing Moon, but Lee rose to prominence with an aggressive pandemic response and a populist economic agenda.
Dogged by a scandal involving a residential development plan when he was mayor of Seongnam in 2015, Lee used his acceptance speech to pledge progress on policy issues, including a push for universal basic income and more affordable housing amid skyrocketing property prices.
Next year’s election represents “the ultimate battle against the corrupt establishment,” he said.
Prosecutors and police have been investigating the Seongnam project amid controversy over Lee’s ties to a former official, who has been arrested on corruption charges related to the deal.
Lee has denied any wrongdoing. His office did not respond to requests for comment.
Housing-related scandals are a particular sore spot for voters in South Korea, where home prices have soared beyond the reach of many.
Lee’s party has been damaged by allegations of property speculation. On the other side, conservative Yoon — a former top prosecutor who joined the opposition after gaining prominence during a political fight with President Moon — was forced in a televised debate last week to distance himself from an unlicensed acupuncturist.
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