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Factional infighting tears at fabric of DUP

A factional feud is gripping the Democratic United Party once again ahead of crucial by-elections in April and its leadership race in May as the main opposition party struggles to regain footing after last year’s presidential election defeat.

The DUP is divided mainly between two groups, one loyal to late former President Roh Moo-hyun and the other his predecessor Kim Dae-jung.

While the pro-Roh faction kept a tight grip on the party’s internal affairs, their belligerent image and hard-line partisanship were considered detrimental to Rep. Moon Jae-in’s campaign in last year’s presidential election.

Following the defeat, the DUP’s support rate has gradually declined, and the bipartisan bickering over the government restructuring plans has dealt a harsh blow to opposition party. 
Democratic United Party floor leader Rep. Park Ki-choon (right) and emergency committee chief Rep. Moon Hee-sang attend the committee’s meeting at the party’s headquarters in Seoul on Friday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Democratic United Party floor leader Rep. Park Ki-choon (right) and emergency committee chief Rep. Moon Hee-sang attend the committee’s meeting at the party’s headquarters in Seoul on Friday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Since mid-February the DUP’s support rating has taken a steep downturn going from 27 percent in the second week of that month to come in at 20 percent in the second week of March.

Experts say that dropping support coupled with former presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo’s return to the political arena puts the DUP at a critical juncture that could even bring its continued existence into question.

Ahn plans to run for Seoul’s Nowon C constituency in the April 24 by-elections, and while he has withheld details, he is widely expected to found a new party within the year. The Gallup Korea survey showed that the DUP’s support rating would be nearly halved should Ahn found a new party. In the survey, 11 percent said that they will support the DUP, while 23 percent indicated support for a party founded by Ahn.

“If someone under the influence of the pro-Roh faction takes the helm, the party will be divided. The nonmainstream members will move to Ahn’s new party en masse,” professor Shin Yul of Myongji University said.

Experts say that the DUP’s factional infighting and maneuverings, which are already showing signs of escalating ahead of the leadership election in May, are only likely to be intensified by Ahn’s return to politics. In addition, Ahn will become a tool as well as a target for the DUP factions’ schemes.

“Pro-Roh people would need to shake Ahn and bring him down, as they can’t run for party leadership because of him,” Shin said.

“If the pro-Roh faction is removed, there is no reason for the moderates to leave the party. It would be better (for their political careers) to remain in the established opposition party than joining a new party. They need to force the pro-Roh faction to take the backseat.”

Shin added that the various statements regarding Ahn’s role and his alleged demands in merging his presidential campaign with that of Moon Jae-in are part of the pro-Roh faction’s ploy to shake the former academic’s footing.

One of the main routes pro-Roh lawmakers are taking in undermining Ahn’s credibility appears to be highlighting his role in the election defeat.

“Immediately after the merger (of Ahn and Moon’s election camps), Ahn’s side demanded that he be referred to as ‘future president,’” Rep. Hong Young-pyo, a key pro-Roh lawmaker, said in a recent radio interview.

“Ahn’s side did not proactively help Moon when we refuse the condition.”

With the pro-Roh faction widely being blamed for the election defeat, experts say that the party needs to move away from factionalism and to take on more moderate colors if it is to survive.

“The DUP should have become more moderate, but the nonmainstream people have limited influence. The emergency committee has been inadequate,” professor Yang Seung-ham of Yonsei University said.

“The emergency committee could highlight the party’s presence by focusing on confirmation hearings, instead they ended up undermining the party by dragging out the government structure negotiations.”

He went on to say that the pro-Roh faction needs to step back and support the fringe factions in leading the party at least for the time being if the DUP is to maintain its political clout in the face of the changes such as Ahn’s new party.

As such eyes are turning to lawmakers who had remained on the outskirts of internal power struggle to lead the party out of the crisis.

Of these, Rep. Kim Han-gil is considered one of the most prominent figures from the fringe factions of the DUP, and is now a favorite for the party chairmanship.

According to a recent survey conducted by Mono Research, Kim is the most popular choice for DUP chairman with 21.8 percent support. He is followed by Rep. Choo Mi-ae with 6.6 percent.

Rep. Lee Yong-sup and former lawmaker Chang Young-dal, who are the only two to have officially announced their running for party chairmanship, respectively received 4.7 percent and 1.6 percent support.

While Kim represents a move away from the influence of the pro-Roh faction, his rise is fueling a new factional standoff within the party.

On March 14, 33 first-term lawmakers of the DUP announced the “declaration for innovation” that called for clearing out factionalism and putting the livelihoods of the people first.

The first-term lawmakers also declared that they would work together to make the party convention a stage for discussing the party’s future, and for electing “innovative leadership.”

However, the declaration has been interpreted by some as being the first step in the formation of an “anti-Kim Han-gil” alliance.

For his part, Kim agreed on the need to remove factionalism while stressing that the development will be ineffective if it gives rise to new factions.

“If such is true, then it will be of no help to changing the party or for preparing for a new start,” Kim said in a radio interview on March 15.

The drawn-out bipartisan negotiation over the proposed revision to the Government Organization Act is also drawing fire for the DUP.

The DUP and the ruling Saenuri Party negotiated the terms for 47 days, leading to President Park Geun-hye becoming the first president to be inaugurated without receiving parliamentary approval for government reform plans.

As such, the DUP was accused of using the bill as a tool to hamper the operations of the Park Geun-hye administration, and also for lacking leadership and political skills.

“It was a blow for the DUP. It showed them that concentrating on just anything is not a good tactic,” professor Shin Yul of Myongji University said.

Others, however, point out that the DUP obtained significant results from the ruling party. As part of the agreement, which enabled the government restructuring to go ahead with the president’s plans largely intact, the two parties specified that a parliamentary investigation into the case of a National Intelligence Service agent posting online comments about presidential candidates in the run up to the Dec. 19 election would be launched immediately after the public prosecutors’ investigation is completed.

The agent, identified by the surname Kim, allegedly posted negative comments about the then-presidential candidate Rep. Moon Jae-in for the DUP on various online communities in an attempt to influence public opinion in favor of Park.

In addition, it was agreed that they would work to launch a parliamentary investigation into the four-river restoration project if the result of that conducted by the Board of Audit and Inspection is deemed unsatisfactory.

By Choi He-suk  (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com)
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