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Politics

South Korean ex-PM's bid for party post offers path to presidency

Lee Nak-yon, seen as possible successor to Moon, runs for chairman of Democrats

Former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon leads opinion polls of likely successors to President Moon Jae-in. (Photo by Yosuke Onchi)

SEOUL -- Lee Nak-yon, the former South Korean prime minister, declared his bid Tuesday for chairman of the ruling Democratic Party, a post that would make him the front-runner to succeed President Moon Jae-in.

The Democratic Party holds its next leadership election Aug. 29. Lee told reporters Tuesday that he will support the presidential Blue House in its response to the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout.

"I will present alternative [legislative] proposals and guide the government for the purpose of overcoming the national crisis and making the Moon administration a success," Lee said.

Lee, the longest-serving prime minister since South Korea adopted a direct presidential election system in 1987, stepped down in January and became the Democratic Party's election strategy chief. The Democrats and an affiliate won 60% of the seats in April's parliamentary election.

Though most in the Democratic Party take a hard line against Japan over historical disputes, Lee is known as an advocate for improved bilateral ties, given his past as a newspaper correspondent stationed in Tokyo.

Opinion polls show Lee as the top pick to be South Korea's next president.

But Democratic Party rules dictate that the sitting chairman cannot become a presidential candidate. Lee would need to step down next March, in the middle of the chairman's two-year term, to qualify for the 2022 presidential campaign.

Yet the chairman has significant say on choosing the personnel involved in the presidential primary. For Lee, who falls outside the mainstream of the party, the chairmanship would give him an opportunity to consolidate political support.

Moon quit as head of a predecessor of the Democratic Party in early 2016, serving roughly a year, before he won the South Korean presidential election in 2017.

Lee likely will face Kim Boo-kyum, a former interior and safety minister, for the chairmanship. Kim was seen as a contender to succeed Moon before he lost his seat in April's general election. Kim, who is expected to announce his candidacy on Thursday, could differentiate himself from Lee by pledging to complete the full two-year term.

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