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Ahn stirs up progressive bloc

Speculation about independent lawmaker Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo’s future moves is pushing opposition parties to jockey for position within the progressive bloc. 

The Democratic Party has been wary of Ahn ever since last year’s presidential election, with senior members offering him a place within the party, and then warning the former academic of the limitations he will face without the backing of a party.

Since last year, the DP’s support rate has declined rapidly and recent surveys indicate that a party headed by Ahn could cause critical damage to the main opposition.

In a Gallup Korea survey conducted the week starting May 13, the DP’s support rate came in at 21 percent while the Saenuri Party managed 40 percent.

The figure for the DP dropped by half when Ahn’s anticipated party was included in the survey. 
Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo raises his hand for a chance to speak as he attends a Health and Welfare Committee meeting for the first time at the National Assembly last Thursday. (Yonhap News)
Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo raises his hand for a chance to speak as he attends a Health and Welfare Committee meeting for the first time at the National Assembly last Thursday. (Yonhap News)

When asked who they would support if Ahn launched his own party, 26 percent of respondents chose Ahn while the Saenuri Party and the DP were chosen by 29 percent and 12 percent of respondents, respectively.

As observers question the DP’s future, the party has been at pains to distinguish itself as the main opposition by becoming increasingly vocal in criticizing the government.

On Thursday, DP chairman Rep. Kim Han-gil hinted that the party would distance itself from Ahn in the coming months.

Speaking at a meeting with broadcast journalists, Kim said that his party would not be forming an alliance with Ahn in the October by-elections, saying that the public viewed such moves as “political engineering” and that they were not as effective as they were in the past.

Kim also said that a situation similar to that seen in the April by-elections would not be repeated.

At the time, the DP chose to forfeit the race for Seoul’s Nowon-C constituency, which Ahn eventually took in a landslide victory. While the party said that the decision was made in light of Ahn’s contribution in the presidential campaign, it prompted criticism that the DP was giving up its purpose as a political entity.

However, Kim left room for interpretation regarding his stance on Ahn merging with the main opposition.

“(Ahn forming an independent power base) could become a development deserving of an award from the Saenuri Party,” Kim said, saying that Ahn forming a new party could result in undeserved benefits for the ruling party.

“I don’t think that forming his own force will drive political reform. If the force centered on Ahn forms a new party, it will run into many limitations in the process.”

Kim’s comments have riled those close to Ahn, who hit back at the DP chairman saying that they were not working for the benefit of established parties.

“What we are doing is neither for the Saenuri Party nor the Democratic Party,” Rep. Song Ho-chang said in a radio interview on Friday. Song was a DP lawmaker until last year when he left the party to join forces with Ahn during his presidential campaign.

“The most important thing is not what is advantageous to which party, but which politician or party will be able to solve public problems.”

The minor opposition Progressive Justice Party is also taking an ambiguous position on Ahn.

“(The party) will define the relationship once (Ahn’s organization) reveals its body and when its colors have become clear,” PJP co-chairman Roh Hoe-chan said in a radio interview on Friday.

Unlike the main opposition, however, the PJP co-chairman left the question of allying with Ahn open saying that alliances with other parties depended on the issue, and that there was no need to choose between rivalry and alliance.

While established progressive parties jockey for position regarding Ahn and the political party he may or may not form, there appears to be some discord among his allies on the issue of founding a new party.

Song, one of Ahn’s closest allies within the National Assembly, has taken a cautious stance on the issue saying that Ahn’s think tank Policy Network Tomorrow was focused on policy research. He also said that viewing the organization as the foundation for a new party was “very different from what is being prepared.”

Such views were echoed by Ahn who told reporters that he was not thinking about a party at present and that he hoped for the think-tank to provide the forum for “intense discussion” among individuals with diverse views.

In contrast, professor Kim Min-jeon of Kyung Hee University, who participated in Ahn’s presidential campaign, emphasized the need for a new party.

“If a new party that is different from existing parties appears and if it can change them, I think that would be the best scenario,” Kim Min-jeon said in a recent interview.

In addition, the disparity between the ideological views of Ahn’s allies has been interpreted by some as being a sign of friction within the independent lawmaker’s power base.

At a recent lecture, chairman of Policy Network Tomorrow’s board of directors Choi Jang-jip said that Ahn’s party would focus on labor issues.

Kim Min-jeon, however, played down Choi’s comment as one of various ideas saying, “a political party is where many ideas come together.”

By Choi He-suk (