Rep. Hwang Woo-yea, an independent-minded four-term lawmaker, was elected new floor leader of the ruling Grand National Party on Friday, signaling a power shift in the party and the collapse of its mainstream faction loyal to President Lee Myung-bak.
Hwang beat Reps. An Kyung-ryul and Lee Byung-suk, both from the pro-Lee camp. In the first round of voting, Hwang won 64 votes out of 159, while An and Lee received 55 and 33, respectively. In the second round, Hwang won 90 votes, 26 more than An’s 64.
The unexpected election outcome implies two things. First, power has shifted from the mainstream faction to a loose alliance of non-mainstream factions led by Rep. Park Geun-hye and a group of young lawmakers from Seoul and the adjoining Gyeonggi Province.
The shift was triggered by the GNP’s defeat in the by-elections last month. The election result amplified fears among GNP lawmakers from the capital zone that they might lose parliamentary seats in the general elections slated for next April unless the party reforms itself. Hence they chose change rather than status quo.
Second, it also means the splitting of the mainstream faction into two groups, one under the leadership of Special Affairs Minister Lee Jae-oh and the other loyal to Lee Sang-deuk, six-term lawmaker and elder brother of President Lee.
Hwang could beat An in the final round of voting as he was second preference for most of the lawmakers who voted in the first round for Lee Byung-suk, who is close to the president’s elder brother. An is a close aide to Lee Jae-oh.
This means the collapse of the mainstream faction that has buttressed President Lee’s policies. As a result, Lee will have to rebalance relations between the government and the ruling party. After his election victory, Hwang said the GNP would stop serving as a rubber stamp for the Lee administration.
Rep. Lee Ju-young, Hwang’s electoral partner who was elected as the party’s policy committee chairman, also criticized the government’s macroeconomic policy, saying its focus on economic growth has worsened social polarization, causing people to turn their backs on the party.
Hwang’s election victory already influenced the Cabinet reshuffle undertaken on the heels of the voting. Hwang reportedly conveyed the consensus view of GNP lawmakers regarding the reshuffle to President Lee, leading him to refrain from nominating his aides, including Ambassador to China Yu Woo-ik and Kwon Jae-jin, senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, for ministerial posts.
Excluding these two aides from the new Cabinet lineup was the right decision, given that the public is fed up with Lee’s revolving-door appointments of his loyal aides to important posts.
Lee has thus far taken for granted the party’s support for him. But down the road he will have to take the party’s views more seriously if he wants it to continue to support his policies. Close cooperation with the party will help him engage with the public.
Lee also needs to give up any intention to exercise influence on the selection of GNP candidates for the next general election. The new floor leader pledged to make sure that candidates are selected through open primaries to exclude any influence from the party leadership. Lee should throw his weight behind the new leader.