|Lee Nak-yon, DPK candidate for Jongno, talks with a vendor at a market in Icheon, Gyeonggi Province, March 24. Yonhap|
This is the first in a series on battleground districts for April 15 general election. ― ED.
By Do Je-hae
The upcoming general election, scheduled to be held on April 15, has largely fallen out of media focus due to the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, the battle in Jongno-gu between two former prime ministers ― Lee Nak-yon of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and Hwang Kyo-ahn of the main opposition United Future Party (UFP) ― is capturing the attention of the press because it is considered a duel between potential presidential contenders.
The so-called battle of Jongno has traditionally been the center of attention during election season mainly because of its unique history in producing the nation's leading politicians. Three candidates who have won in Jongno have gone on to become president ― Yun Bo-seon, Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak.
With this history in mind, many people view the Lee-Hwang duel as something more than a competition for a National Assembly seat. The result of the Jongno race is expected to have a significant impact on the next presidential election slated for March 2022. So far, Lee has been consistently on top of polls for preferred candidates in the next presidential race.
A four-term lawmaker, Lee is a seasoned politician who has also served as governor of South Jeolla Province. He had a lengthy career in journalism as a reporter and served as Tokyo correspondent for the Donga Ilbo before becoming a politician in May 2000. Currently, Lee is leading the DPK's committee for dealing with COVID-19 and co-heading another committee on election strategy.
Many people know Lee as the nation's longest-serving prime minister. At the time of his nomination as President Moon Jae-in's first prime minister in May 2017, Lee was serving as South Jeolla Province governor and was not really considered a star politician. But during his service as prime minister, his political status made a noticeable leap as he led the Cabinet and assisted the President for two years and seven months.
Lee also made a deep impression among the Korean public as the President's special envoy to Japan to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in October 2019. He visited amid severe bilateral tensions as Korea was considering discontinuing the military intelligence sharing pact with Japan, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA).
Lee has underlined that his extensive experience in government gives him the skill to identify and create policies that the people need. "During the time I worked as a journalist and served at the National Assembly, I was aware of the problems that the people faced but did not know much about the process of policy creation. One of my most cherished assets from serving as governor and as prime minister is that I gained more knowledge about how policies are established," Lee said during a press conference in December 2019, shortly before leaving his post as prime minister to run in the election.
|UFP Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn greets supporters during a campaign event in Gahoe-dong, Jongno-gu, March 25. Yonhap|
Hwang was a career prosecutor who served as justice minister and former President Park Geun-hye's last prime minister. He entered politics in February 2019 as chairman of the Liberty Korea Party, the precursor to the UFP, despite having no background in politics. As a political rookie, he has sometimes been criticized for lacking leadership skills, as seen in the UFP's controversial candidate nomination process for the general election.
Nonetheless, he has quickly built a considerable political stature, emerging as one of the leading potential presidential candidates of the conservative bloc. The political future of Hwang and his party depends heavily on the outcome of the Jongno vote, which he has called a "battle between the Moon Jae-in administration and myself."
At the moment, Hwang trails far behind Lee in polls among Jongno voters. In a recent survey by Embrain, 52.3 percent said they favored Lee to win the election, while Hwang only gained 29.3 percent. "I do not think that the polls are very significant. In the past, candidates who were behind in the polls have often turned things around in the end. I think I will definitely take victory in the upcoming election," Hwang said during a rally in front of Sungkyunkwan University, March 19.
In the past two general elections, the candidates from the precursors of the current ruling party have taken Jongno. It is currently represented by the DPK's Chung Sye-kyun, the incumbent prime minister.