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South Korea President’s Prominent Rival Picked to Lead Opposition

·2 min read

(Bloomberg) -- South Korea’s main opposition picked a high-profile rival of the president as its new leader, adding to the government’s challenges as it struggles to build support after three months in office.

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The progressive Democratic Party elected Lee Jae-myung on Sunday to lead the charge against conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol. Lee, a populist who pushed to introduce universal basic income, narrowly lost to Yoon in the presidential election in March in a bitterly contested presidential election where the candidates berated each other on the campaign trail.

Lee won 77.8% of the total vote in the election and was followed by two-term lawmaker Park Yong-jin, with 22.2%. The new party leader said in his acceptance speech the election result was the South Korean people’s “order to save the Republic of Korea from the despair” of the Yoon administration.

The new party leader, who emerged as the front-runner during primary contests, faces the challenge of reviving a Democratic Party that dominates parliament but has been losing major elections, including races in June for provincial governors and mayors of the two biggest cities of Seoul and Busan.

Public sentiment toward the party soured when it controlled the presidency for five years from 2017 and housing costs soared, with average apartment prices in Seoul doubling during that time.

Lee has vowed to fight the Yoon administration’s “misdoings.” This includes the president’s attempt to create a police bureau that could allow his government to assume greater control over the powerful law enforcement agency.

Since taking office in May, Yoon has seen his support rate fall to among the lowest for any South Korean president at a similar point in their term due to policy missteps. These include the plan for the police bureau and unpopular moves such as lowering the age of school entry by one year to five. He abandoned the latter plan after an angry public reaction. Yoon’s approval rating was at 27% in a weekly Gallup Korea tracking poll released Friday.

One worry for Yoon would be a further slip in the polls. This could embolden the Democrats to consider whether to muster its majority in parliament, which is large enough to push through an impeachment measure or override any veto from Yoon.

Lee has served as mayor of Seongnam, south of Seoul, and governor of South Korea’s most populous province before he ran for the presidency. He has also been under a cloud of suspicion due to a real-estate speculation scandal that unfolded when he was mayor. Lee has denied any wrongdoing, while several people close to him have faced police investigation.

(Updates with election results throughout.)

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