South Korea’s main opposition party picked a 36-year-old who has never served in parliament as its leader, turning to a reform advocate as it tries to reclaim the presidency next year.
The People Power Party voted Friday to select Lee Jun-seok as its leader, making the Harvard University graduate the youngest person to control the post for the main conservative bloc. He received 44% of the vote, ahead of the nearest contender, Na Kyung-won, a former parliamentary floor leader, who garnered 37%, according to the party.
Lee is seeking to appeal to younger people who feel the system favors the rich and connected, crucial swing voters who may decide who leads the country after President Moon Jae-in’s single five-year term ends in May. The new PPP chief has vowed to introduce “qualification tests” for would-be lawmakers, including testing their ability to use basic computer programs.
“Through this change, we will reform and we will win,” Lee said after the vote. “I am fully aware that there are people worried about my ideas, but the Korean people would see our moves as our fierce attempt and willingness for a change.”
Lee is too young to seek the presidency, with the South Korean constitution requiring a person be at least 40 years of age. PPP lawmakers said the group was look to entice the country’s former top prosecutor, Yoon Seok-youl, to run under their banner.
Moon handpicked Yoon to lead his charge against corruption, but the top prosecutor later faced backlash from Moon for launching graft probes into the president’s administration. Yoon is at the top, or near the top, of several polls to replace the president.
The rising star for the ruling progressives is Gyeonggi province Gov. Lee Jae-myung, who is the leading candidate for the ruling party in opinion polls with his signature policy of a universal basic income.
The conservative bloc has been trying to reform its image after Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye — conservatives who served back-to-back as presidents — were imprisoned for corruption. New PPP leader Lee joined the conservatives under Park and later became a prominent critic of her as she faced criminal allegations.
Conservatives made a rare apology for the corruption of their past presidents in December. The gesture was aimed at luring back swing voters who lost faith in the group, often seen as closely tied to big business and the military-backed government that suppressed civil rights until the late 1980s.
The PPP trails the ruling Democratic Party by about four percentage points, according to a Gallup Korea weekly tracking poll on Friday. But 57% of recipients who identified as “swing voters” disapproved of Moon’s presidency, the Gallup poll said, compared with 38% who approved.
“Our top priority is to win the presidential election next year,” Lee Jun-seok said. “During that process, I will reform this party, where various presidential candidates and their supporters may coexist.”
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