S.Korea conservatives pick upstart to retake presidential office

Lee Jun-Seok, new chairman of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) speaks after elected for leadership race at party headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, June 11, 2021. Kim Min-Hee/Pool via REUTERS

SEOUL (Reuters) -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 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.

(Reporting by Hyonhee ShinEditing by Robert Birsel)

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