On December 23, 2022, the ruling conservative People Power Party (PPP) in South Korea, currently in power after the election of President Yoon Suk-yeol, changed the voting rules for selecting a new party chair.
Last July, Lee Jun-seok, the former PPP chair, was suspended from party membership after accusations that he was involved in a sexual bribery and cover-up scandal. Following Lee’s suspension, he was effectively ousted from his role as chair. An emergency committee led by Chung Jin-suk was formed to take interim control of the party after a failed attempt to form an emergency committee led by the party’s current floor leader, Joo Ho-young.
Since 2004, the PPP chair has been selected through a combination of public poll results and party member ballots, accounting for 30 and 70 percent of the vote, respectively. However, that process has been officially modified. In early December, the PPP proposed a revision to the party charter regarding the voting system for its leadership, which would eliminate the public poll vote and only allow votes from party members when selecting a new chair.
On December 23, the PPP decided to move forward with the decision to elect its new leadership through only party member votes. This change is expected to go into effect in early March, when the PPP is planning to hold a national convention for the chair election.
The current leadership of the PPP initiated a swift process to revise the voting rule days after Yoon privately shared his favorable views on the revision. The move met with criticism, particularly among members of the PPP who are not part of the pro-Yoon faction of the party. One such politician, Yoo Seong-min, has been leading in the public polls for the PPP chair position. A competitor against Yoon in South Korea’s presidential primary elections, Yoo has accused the president and members of his faction of taking this drastic step in amending the party charter in order to “get rid of” him.
Others have also criticized the move, arguing that the revision would ignore public opinion while only benefiting politicians who are close to Yoon. The change will ultimately block the path of any anti-Yoon lawmaker to become the party leader.
Meanwhile, politicians from the pro-Yoon faction of the PPP – including four-time lawmaker Kim Gi-hyeon, a hopeful key candidate in the chair race – supported the move. Kim said that the voting rule change would better represent the opinions of PPP members. However, there were criticisms within the party that the revised election system could mean the PPP will struggle to garner support from moderates in the 2024 general elections.
Another pro-Yoon politician, Ahn Cheol-soo, declared his intention to run for the PPP leadership early this month. A former doctor and tech entrepreneur, Ahn competed against Yoon in the 2022 presidential election as a third-party candidate before ultimately dropping out and giving his support to Yoon. He also served as the chief of Yoon’s presidential transition committee after Yoon won the election on March 9, 2022.
At the press conference where Ahn announced his bid for PPP chair, he emphasized his close-knit relationship with the president. Considering his ambition to be Yoon’s successor, however, Ahn’s candidacy has not been warmly welcomed by other pro-Yoon lawmakers. Some suspect Ahn could use the right of nomination as a party leader to bolster his inner circle within the party as preparation for his next steps. His past experience as head of the main opposition Democratic Party might have also negatively affected his efforts to consolidate support from pro-Yoon lawmakers, while his relatively low approval ratings are uncompelling.
In a recent public poll of PPP supporters, Na Kyung-won, a former four-time lawmaker, was considered the top contender for the chair role, garnering almost twice as much support as Kim. Na served as the vice chair of the Presidential Committee on Aging Society and Population Policy and as climate ambassador before Yoon dismissed her following a policy disagreement between Na and the presidential office.
Na, a veteran conservative politician who is not part of the pro-Yoon faction of the party, has not declared her intention to run for the chair position. However, she will likely make an announcement entering the race after Yoon comes back from his trip to UAE and Switzerland, according to those close to her.
In order to secure support from the PPP members, Na publicly said that she would never be an anti-Yoon politician. However, her dismissal from her previous roles has been viewed as evidence of Yoon’s objection to her potentially running for the chair position. Given Yoon’s decision to dismiss Na and his inner circle’s criticism against her, however, she is believed to have been out of Yoon’s favor.
Meanwhile, Kim’s approval rating has spiked in the past few days since he was reported as the closest loyal ally of Yoon.
In the wake of the revision of the voting rule, the current leadership has strived to unite the PPP and urge party members to give unconditional support to Yoon. On Monday, Chung, the interim party leader, said that the party will punish those who criticize Yoon or damage the reputation of the party, triggering snowballing criticism from anti-Yoon lawmakers. Chung followed up by saying that the 2024 general election would be an assessment of the Yoon administration – which means that the party’s goal to retake power in the National Assembly depends on Yoon’s approval rating.
Yoon’s approval rating is hovering at around 40 percent, even though it has been only eight months since he took office. Due to his failure to garner support from the public, the PPP’s approval rating is also low, hampering its bid to defeat the main opposition Democratic Party in the 2024 general elections. As things currently stand, the Yoon administration and the PPP cannot pass any single law without the DP’s cooperation in the National Assembly, as it holds more than half of 300 seats.
Party members will vote for new leadership at the PPP national convention, scheduled for March 8, when the interim leadership committee is set to dissolve. A run-off vote will be held in the event that no candidate wins the majority of votes.