South Korea’s ruling party revamps rules to place Park at helm

By Jack Kim, Reuters

SEOUL — South Korea’s governing party revised its rules on Thursday to pave the way for its presidential frontrunner Park Geun-hye to take over as interim party leader and revive the crisis-hit conservatives four months before a general election. The change, seen as a last-ditch effort to put the Grand National Party (GNP) back on its feet after suffering a series of by-election defeats this year, will allow Park to test her reputation as “queen of elections.” Park, daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, will oversee the GNP’s push to hold onto a parliamentary majority in the April election. Analysts say the move could make or break her expected bid for the presidency late in 2012. Next year, for the first time in 20 years, South Korea will elect a new Parliament and president in the same year. President Lee Myung-bak’s mandatory single term ends in early 2013. “Now she needs to put her efforts to win in the general election,” said Woo Jung-Yeop of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “(But) we will see another turmoil in the GNP if they lose.” The big-business friendly GNP has dramatically fallen from grace in Asia’s fourth largest economy as low- and middle-class voters perceive it as favoring the rich and privileged. They say it also has done little to address a growing wealth divide, and youth unemployment has stayed high. At a rare attendance at a party meeting on Thursday, Park said nothing short of a total overhaul of the party would be needed to win back the confidence of voters, all but accepting a growing call from the party to take over as interim leader. “It is awkward for me to be speaking as if I’m the emergency council chairperson when I’m not one yet, but let me speak about that once all the procedures are over,” she said. The party is expected to meet on Monday to vote on the formation of an emergency council which will oversee the party’s preparations for the April general election. Park had been the favorite to win the presidential election next December until the GNP ran into problems this year. Voters in their 20s to 40s have turned against mainstream parties in the past few months, and respected software entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo has overtaken Park as the country’s number one choice for president.

Ahn, who has no party affiliation, has expressed no intention or interest in running. A number of high-profile legislators deserted the GNP this month amid concern it is out of touch with moderate voters, saying that the party should be disbanded. The party’s chairman was last week forced to resign. Park previously took over as leader of GNP in 2004 when it was left reeling by a public backlash against the impeachment of then liberal President Roh Moo-hyun. Park successfully led efforts to rebuild the party, leading to a landslide victory in 2008 legislative elections.