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S Korea oppn picks young upstart to retake presidential office

Lee Jun-seok (C), newly elected chairman of the main opposition People Power Party with new executive committee members at the party's headquarters in Seoul. - AFP
Lee Jun-seok (C), newly elected chairman of the main opposition People Power Party with new executive committee members at the party's headquarters in Seoul. - AFP

SEOUL: A 36-year-old South Korean startup founder was elected leader of the conservative opposition party on Friday and pledged to win over voters increasingly disillusioned with traditional rough-and-tumble politics and retake the presidency next year.


Lee Jun-seok became the youngest leader of any major political party in democratic South Korean history, elected by party delegates and through public polls to head the People Power Party.


"Our biggest task is to win the presidential election," Lee said in an acceptance speech.


Lee promised an end to the divisive, acrimonious politics that South Koreans have known for decades.


"Our commitment to make fair opportunity available to anyone ... will lead us to victory in the presidential election," he said.


The People Power Party has yet to choose its presidential candidate.


Lee Jun-seok, newly elected chairman of the main opposition People Power Party at the party's headquarters in Seoul. - AFP
Lee Jun-seok, newly elected chairman of the main opposition People Power Party at the party's headquarters in Seoul. - AFP


Lee is too young to run for president in the next election - the constitution requires candidates to be at least 40 - and he said he would oversee the party primary for its candidate.


President Moon Jae-in's Democratic Party has three heavyweight candidates, including two former prime ministers and the governor of the most populous province of Gyeonggi.


Lee, a graduate of Harvard University, has been a consultant with his party since 2011, after he founded an education smartphone app, but he has never held office.


His surprise win came as younger, centrist voters have emerged as a key block amid increasing disillusionment with what many South Koreans see as hypocritical, inept leaders.


Runaway home prices and deepening inequality have contributed to a slide in Moon's popularity to record lows and to ruling party defeats in key mayoral elections in April.


Moon congratulated Lee and told him his victory was a sign of change, the president's press secretary said. Moon also called for cooperation "even though some political confrontation might be inevitable" ahead of the election.


Lee has been walking a moderate path, showing up more seasoned politicians in debates with logic and reasoned arguments while they focused on negative campaigning.


His more established rivals struggled to offer policy alternatives or shake off an old, elitist image.


Though an underdog, Lee won 43.8 per cent of ballots cast online, defeating Na Kyung-won, a four-term lawmaker and floor leader, who earned 37.1 per cent as runner-up. Na led Lee by a 3.5 per cent margin in the vote among party members, which was upset by sweeping support from the public.


"His victory is a wake-up call for established politicians across the spectrum," said Lee Tae-woo, a 35-year-old architect who perceives him as centrist. "Lee could make a flexible approach without falling into the old ideology trap, and I just hope that senior leaders will embrace his leadership and work together to change." - Reuters


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