Asia

South Korea’s ruling party bets on an anti-establishment figure

LAST WEEK the campaign for Lee Jae-myung, who on October 10th was nominated as the ruling Minjoo party’s candidate for president of South Korea, published a striking pair of old photographs. One shows a floppy-haired boy in his early teens in an ill-fitting, oversized factory-worker’s uniform. In the other, a boy of similar age wears a well-cut blue jacket with a pressed white collar and slim red bow tie, his hair neatly trimmed.

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The first picture is of Mr Lee; the second, of Yoon Seok-youl, his most likely conservative opponent in the presidential election in March. The question the pictures ask is clear. Who should run the country—the self-made man of the people, or the pampered son of a professor?

Railing against privilege is hardly an original political strategy. In South Korea, it may seem like an especially tired pitch for a wannabe president. After all, the country has been governed for four years by the left-wing administration of President Moon Jae-in, who was swept into office on a tide of outrage against a corrupt conservative establishment.

Yet the 56-year-old Mr Lee has successfully tapped into the political mood. Voters are dissatisfied with the current government’s failure to make good on promises to rein in spiralling housing costs and revive the pandemic-racked economy. The opposition, hobbled by a series of embarrassing gaffes including Mr Yoon’s alleged ties to shamans, one of whom is an anal acupuncturist, has failed to capitalise on the dissatisfaction. Mr Lee, who promises to tackle his predecessor’s unfulfilled pledges in his own way, is currently ahead in polls despite representing the incumbent party.

Mr Lee, who has few supporters in the party establishment, has risen to prominence over the past decade by championing unorthodox welfare policies. These have been popular with voters in South Korea, which suffers from persistent youth unemployment, expensive housing and high rates of relative poverty among the old, yet spends only 12.2% of GDP on social benefits, a little more than half the rich-country average.

During two four-year terms as mayor of Seongnam, a city of some 1m people in Gyeonggi province near Seoul, the capital, Mr Lee introduced unconditional payments for young people, billed as “youth basic income”, free postnatal care for mothers and free school uniforms, while also improving the debt-ridden city’s finances through budget cuts and better tax collection. When he was elected governor of Gyeonggi, South Korea’s most populous province, in 2018, he took many of those policies to its 13.5m inhabitants. If elected president, he promises to introduce a nationwide universal basic income, expand credit for the poor and build more public housing.

Critics question the financial viability of his platform, particularly the national basic income. Yet the pandemic has bolstered support for more generous welfare policies in the country, and Mr Lee has a reputation for efficacy. His background, of which he likes to remind voters on a near-daily basis, has also helped. Born into a family of poor farmers in Andong, South Korea’s conservative heartland, as the fifth of seven children, he left school when he was 12 years old to work in a factory, where his arm was caught in a press, permanently damaging it. He put himself through night school and won a scholarship to study law. Like many other Minjoo politicians, including Mr Moon, he spent years as a human-rights lawyer and campaigner for left-wing causes before formally entering politics.

His knack for political stunts has boosted his image, too. After being elected mayor of Seongnam, he moved his office from the ninth to the second floor to be closer to the “people at the bottom”, as he recalls in his autobiography. This spring he compelled all foreign residents in the province to get tested for covid-19, sticking to the plan despite accusations that it was xenophobic and discriminated against migrants. Voters loved it.

Mr Lee is no shoo-in. Several former associates have been arrested in recent weeks in connection with a sprawling corruption scandal over property investments in Seongnam whose origins date back to his tenure as mayor. The fallout nearly cost him his victory in the primary. Mr Lee has denied all allegations that he was involved and has promised to co-operate with an upcoming parliamentary audit. The opposition will be praying that the working-class hero turns out to be part of the corrupt establishment after all.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Working-class hero”

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