Korea’s largest opposition party ― the New Politics Alliance for Democracy ― is struggling to contain the fallout from the July 30 electoral debacle.
The NPAD was quick to set up a crisis-management committee led by veteran politician and floor leader Park Young-sun, with a mission to overhaul the party until its new leadership is chosen at a national convention early next year.
The caretaker committee will surely seek to revamp the giant party, which has 130 parliamentary seats in the 300-member unicameral legislature, in a desperate effort to regain public confidence.
Leaders resigning, emergency committees being launched, reforms being pushed for and new leadership being selected are typical occurrences for a Korean political party after an election defeat.
The reform measures to be discussed by the NPAD committee should be shocking, considering the lack of support it received in last month’s parliamentary by-elections, in which it won just four out of 15 seats up for grabs.
The party’s humiliating defeat was the latest in its electoral setbacks since it lost the 2007 presidential election and had to hand governing power to the current ruling Saenuri Party, the nation’s largest conservative bloc.
Since then, the opposition camp has continued to suffer election losses: in the 2012 general elections and presidential vote, and in the Seoul metropolitan area in the June local elections this year.
Although the opposition party had come up with what it claimed were reform measures after the elections, they were only stopgaps and far from what voters hoped for.
This defeat was all the more painful for the party as the elections were held amid difficult political conditions for the ruling camp, with President Park Geun-hye’s approval ratings dipping in the wake of her government’s clumsy handling of the Sewol ferry disaster, her prime ministerial nomination fiasco and revelations of meddling by intelligence agents in the presidential campaign.
Behind the NPAD’s electoral debacle were, as political pundits pointed out, its failure to do away with aspects of old-fashioned politics like leaders handpicking candidates, factional feuds and reliance on smear campaigns rather than competitive policies.
Another reason, at least in my view, was the weak joint leadership of novelist-turned-politician Kim Han-gil and former IT guru Ahn Cheol-soo, both of whom resigned from the chairmanship after the by-elections.
The opposition party has been virtually adrift without a robust leader like the late Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.
Party lawmakers, too, have focused on their reelections while paying less attention to how to revive the state rule by progressives under a strong flag bearer.
Voters must have been fed up with them acting like elitists or autocrats while forgetting their role as “servants” tasked with looking after the rights and interests of the poor and minorities in society.
In a nutshell, they lost public confidence.
To win back voters’ support and stop another five-year rule by conservatives, drastic reforms are necessary for the opposition party.
It is against this backdrop that while announcing his political retirement after an election defeat, former party presidential candidate Sohn Hak-kyu called for the NPAD to push for a change in politics.
But when the party’s interim leader Park and her committee promote in-house reform measures, rough sailing is expected due to a looming power struggle among party factions. The opposition party has three main factions ― Kim’s followers, Roh’s deputies and Ahn’s supporters.
Accordingly, the party is advised to disband itself to create a new pan-national political group with minor opposition parties representing the nation’s progressives and a left-centrist wing.
In the process, young, competent politicians should come to the front to lead the new opposition force while older political heavyweights should take a back seat.
Also new blood from civic organizations or other professional groups with similar political ideologies should be brought into the new proposed party.
Repercussions within the party would be severe because such radical changes would mean the loss of political benefits held by party lawmakers and local chapter heads.
But few would disagree that without grave reforms, the NPAD will see a repeat of its electoral setback in the 2016 general elections and 2017 presidential vote.
The people want the opposition party to turn over a new leaf. The current political crisis facing the NPAD may be an opportunity.
By Shin Yong-bae
Shin Yong-bae is the digital content editor of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.