REBUKED by voters in elections for parliament last week, President Roh Tae Woo of South Korea has moved earlier than expected to allow his Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) to pick a candidate to replace him.
The first politician to throw his hat into the ring is Kim Young Sam. A one-time opposition leader, Mr. Kim defected to the governing party two years ago to become its "executive chairman," hoping to succeed Mr. Roh in presidential elections due later this year.
Roh appeared to back Kim on Friday, three days after the DLP failed to win an absolute majority of seats in National Assembly elections.
Until this setback, Roh was reluctant to openly endorse Kim or to allow the DLP to hold a presidential nominating convention before June.
Under the new Constitution, the president is a lame-duck leader limited to one five-year term. Roh was hand-picked by his predecessor, Chun Doo Hwan, who came to power following a 1979 coup. Roh defeated Kim in 1987 presidential elections that marked a gradual return to democracy. He is due to step down next February.
By not anointing a successor until now, Roh has avoided sapping his own authority in both the government and the DLP. But with two opposition parties having gained strength in the election and likely to put forward presidential candidates soon, Kim was able to convince Roh to move quickly on naming a DLP candidate.
Roh and his old party colleagues had hoped to model South Korea's new democracy after Japan's, where the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (not connected to the DLP) has long dominated the country by rotating leaders among competing party factions, while co-opting the opposition. Voter backlash
But too much bickering and back-room maneuvering inside the DLP over the successor to Roh produced high voter discontent.
By taking only 49 percent of the assembly seats last Tuesday, with an upstart alternative conservative party helping to deprive the DLP of its expected two-thirds majority, Roh's vision of imitating Japanese politics has vanished.
Now, the DLP's convention will be held in May, as sought by Kim, who has already gained a jump on his rivals in the DLP by getting Roh's blessing to announce his candidacy. In addition, Roh has agreed to cede his power over the party to Kim.
"From now on I will concentrate on reviving the vitality of the economy, improving relations between South and North Korea, and tackling other state affairs," Roh was quoted as saying.
Some of Kim's rivals in the DLP want him to take the blame for the election setback. But Kim was able to point to blunders by the Roh government, rather than the party, as the reason for having lost the seats.
In particular, Kim noted the impact on voters of "malignant happenings" by the government: the alleged use of intelligence agents in the campaign and coercion by military officers to get soldiers to vote for the ruling party.
A house-cleaning is now expected in both the government and the party. Roh is reportedly ready to sack the government intelligence chief in a Cabinet reshuffle, while Kim will likely let other top party leaders go. Other challengers
Other DLP leaders, however, could still challenge Kim's candidacy.
"I am willing to compete with anyone in our party in a fair manner," he said. But no one else has Kim's name-recognition nor track record of fighting decades of dictatorship.
The DLP instead has its eyes on the maverick Unification National Party (UNP) led by business tycoon Chung Ju Yung.
The UNP was able to take 31 of the 299 seats and 17.5 percent of the vote across regional lines, considered quite a feat for a party that only started in January.
Because Mr. Chung is 76 years old, he may not run for president but rather put forward a younger, popular face. Either way, he is keeping the DLP off-guard and making its leaders guess what he will do.