Gyeonggi Gov. Lee named presidential candidate for ruling party amid swirling corruption scandal
SEOUL-- Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung won the ruling Democratic Party's nomination for president Sunday, a widely expected victory for a man championing universal basic income and other sweeping welfare programs amid concern a deepening corruption scandal involving a close aide could dog him through the race.
The 56-year-old human rights lawyer-turned-politician won 50.29 percent of all votes cast in the course of the party's 11-round primary since early last month, followed by former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon with 39.14 percent.
Ex-Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae won 9.01 percent and two-term lawmaker Park Yong-jin won 1.55 percent.
The governor narrowly secured a majority of the votes needed to avoid a runoff.
Within hours of Lee Jae-myung's victory, Lee Nak-yon's camp said it will appeal the results of the primary, arguing that votes thrown in support of two candidates who dropped out midway through the primary, Chung Se-kyun and Kim Doo-gwan, should have counted toward the total votes.
In that case, the total votes would rise from about 1.46 million to around 1.48 million, making Lee Jae-myung's winning total drop to 48.38 percent, which would have forced a runoff with Lee Nak-yon.
The party said it only stuck to a party rule stipulating votes cast for candidates who pull out from the primary be voided.
Lee Jae-myung was largely projected to garner about 56 percent of the total votes but barely surpassed the threshold by a razor-thin margin of less than 0.3 percentage point after Lee Nak-yon made a surprise landslide victory in the party's third primary vote among ordinary citizens.
The governor had 28.3 percent of the votes, as opposed to Lee Nak-yon's 62.3 percent, a result widely presumed to be related with the corruption scandal surrounding a 2015 land development project in Seongnam, south of Seoul, that he pushed for when he was Seongnam's mayor.
He pledged a powerful reform of real estate policy and efforts to root out corruption.
"As soon as I am elected, I will carry out powerful real estate reforms so as to rid the country of the stigma of 'a republic of unearned real estate income,'" Lee said in an acceptance speech, referring to widespread voter discontent with skyrocketing housing prices that have made the rich richer.
Branding next year's presidential election as "the ultimate battle against the corrupt establishment," Lee said, "We have to decide whether we will go back to the dark past or start off as a new country of hope."
The governor said he will also push for policies to achieve a powerful state-led economic renaissance, universal welfare programs, as well as investment in science and technology, and future-oriented education.
"Being president means representing everyone ... I will make a unified nation where everyone can enjoy fair opportunities regardless of political inclination or regions of origin, without drawing a line between us, your side and my side," he added.
In the March 9 presidential vote, Lee is expected to be pitted against either former Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl or five-term lawmaker Hong Joon-pyo, the leading candidates in the main opposition People Power Party's presidential primary.
The scandal remains a source of a potential political firestorm for Lee's presidential run.
It centers on revelations that a previously unheard-of asset management firm, Hwacheon Daeyu, and its seven affiliates reaped profits of more than 1,000 times their investments after the firm was selected as a civilian partner for the 2015 project.
One of Lee's associates has been arrested on charges of playing key roles in the selection process as well as designing the profit distribution arrangements in a way that benefits the firm while inflicting losses on the city.
The main opposition party has accused Lee of masterminding the whole scheme, and called for an independent counsel investigation into the scandal while urging Lee to step down as presidential candidate.
Lee has categorically rejected all allegations as "fake news," including his relationship with Yoo, arguing that he gained not a single penny from the project and that the opposition party is raising allegations against him in an attempt to cover up its own wrongdoing.
Despite the scandal, Lee has led opposition candidates in opinion polls.
According to a joint survey by four pollsters published this week, Lee had 26 percent of support. Following him were PPP candidates Yoon and Hong with 17 percent and 15 percent, respectively. In a hypothetical two-way race between Lee and Yoon, Lee had 44 percent of support against Yoon's 33 percent.
The upcoming election is also seen as a referendum both on the five-year reign of liberal President Moon Jae-in and his ruling party amid widespread voter frustrations with runaway housing prices, considered the biggest policy failure of the Moon government.
Lee has pledged to sharply increase home supply to provide more than 2.5 million housing units during the five-year presidential term if he is elected, an ambitious goal that critics say is unrealistic.
Lee has been best known for his calls for universal basic income and other welfare measures. He pledged to give up to 1 million won (US$838.30) to each citizen and an additional 1 million won to every young adult per year, if elected.
Lee has pledged to mostly inherit President Moon Jae-in's foreign policy, saying he would play a more active role in brokering a deal between the United States and North Korea. He said he would meet with U.S. President Joe Biden and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to resolve the problem.
Lee said the U.S. is South Korea's "only ally" and pledged to further strengthen relations between the two countries. Still, he also said he would bolster ties with China, arguing there is no reason for South Korea to "narrow the room for maneuver" by taking sides between the U.S. and China.
On Japan, he said he would seek a two-track strategy of dealing with history and other issues separately.
Lee is projected to resign from his Gyeonggi governorship as early as late October to commit himself entirely to presidential campaigning ahead of the opposition nomination.
Source: Yonhap News Agency