Few were surprised that the main opposition party’s rally at a gymnasium in Seoul to approve merger with another group of progressives was marred by so much noise and violence, as such scenes are rather a tradition in the nation’s rugged political history. And true to tradition, the losers in Sunday’s Democratic Party convention are about to bring the intraparty dispute to court.
Rep. Park Jie-won and his supporters contended that the vote on the merger with the Citizens Unity Party, a hurriedly assembled group consisting mainly of former loyalists of Roh Moo-hyun, was invalid because less than half of the total 10,562 party representatives cast their ballots. Party chair Sohn Hak-kyu and other executives insisted the merger was duly endorsed because more than half of the representatives attended the convention and they overwhelmingly supported the merger, although some abstained.
The “integration” of the two parties was aimed to achieve dominance among opposition groups ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections next year. Earlier this month, the Democratic Labor Party and two radical opposition groups declared unity under the new name of “the United Progressive Party.”
When the DP and the CUP formally become one party in a convention early in January 2012 under whatever name they agree on, the first round of opposition regrouping will be complete. The next task will be realizing yet another merger of the DP/CUP group with the UPP to make what pundits termed a “grand opposition integration” to grab victory in the forthcoming elections.
With the conservative ruling Grand National Party unraveling under rapid decline of popular support and absence of firm leadership, the liberal and progressive oppositionists are prematurely visualizing a change of power in the legislature in April and in the administration in December. Yet, the commotion at the Olympic Gymnasium on Sunday indicated they were not ready to be given a mandate, not even for genuine opposition unity.
Since the end of the military-backed authoritarian rule in the late 1980s, Korean voters have patiently given their support to conservative and liberal forces, expecting steady democratic progress as the parties developed. However, parties on either side of the ideological divide continue to disintegrate and regroup roughly in sync with the election cycle.
Lee Myung-bak is the only president who has not sought to “re-create” the party that had brought him to power. On the right, changes have been comparatively moderate: the Democratic Liberal Party and then the New Korea Party were the biggest conservative parties before the GNP was formed in 1997. On the left, the history of partisan transformations have recorded regroupings ― through dissolutions and mergers ― as many as five times since 2000.
We have just witnessed the sixth event and we will see a seventh possibly before the April parliamentary elections and almost certainly before the December presidential vote. However, both the ruling and opposition camps are facing a formidable challenge in 2012 from a third force, the Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon. Park Won-soon’s win in the Oct. 26 mayoral by-election in Seoul with Ahn’s endorsement was a preview of a totally new political dynamic, which was the consequence of the failures of the existing parties.
Sohn Hak-kyu said his party showed its uglier side of itself Sunday but he admitted it was the true face of the Democratic Party. He and other politicians should be deeply aware that continued disappointments in the process of “opposition integration” will blow the power further away from them and carry it on a plate to Ahn and whichever group he represents.