The 19th presidential election in which liberal Moon Jae-in took power marks another evolution of Korean democracy. Most of all, it is the second conservative-to-liberal transition of power.
The first such power transfer was nearly two decades ago, when longtime dissident Kim Dae-jung swept into power on the back of the 1997-1998 financial crisis that had battered the conservative government of Kim Young-sam. The first progressive government in decades was succeeded by another liberal, Roh Moo-hyun, Moon’s former boss and mentor.
Then the liberals lost two successive elections, to Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. Moon, riding the wave of public anger against Park, led the liberals’ comeback.
Some political pundits say the 2017 election could be part of a “virtuous cycle” in which conservatives and liberals take turns capturing power every 10 years. In some respects, it indeed could be beneficial for Korean democracy, which still needs to mature further, as evidenced by the outrageous influence-peddling and corruption scandal involving Park and her confidante Choi Soon-sil.
It is not surprising that both the 1997 and 2017 power transfers to liberal administrations were facilitated by national crises, for which conservative rulers were primarily to blame.
But compared to the 1997 foreign exchange crisis, the political crisis caused by Park was much more ruinous to the conservative bloc.
As anti-Park candlelight vigils took over major streets across the country, traditional conservatives turned their backs on Park and her ruling party. As a result, except former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who the conservative party once thought about nominating as its presidential candidate but which he spurned, no conservative contender posed any threat to Moon.
The election results themselves point to the stark reality faced by conservatives in the country. The combined percentage of votes for the two leading conservative candidates -- Hong Joon-pyo and Yoo Seong-min -- was 30.8 percent, far less than the 51.6 percent Park garnered in 2012.
Some conservative voters also turned to moderate liberal Ahn Cheol-soo, which helped Moon win the election with an even smaller portion of votes -- 41.6 percent -- than the 48 percent he received in 2012.
For now, the conservative bloc is split between Hong’s Liberal Korea Party and Yoo’s Bareun Party. They may need to discuss joining forces to rebuild conservatism.
Healthy conservatism should remain one of the pillars of Korean society and politics. After real soul-searching and banishing those responsible for ruining the Park presidency, conservatives should recoup their strength.
In relation, one way for the conservatives and the opposition as a whole --including Ahn’s People’s Party -- to regain public confidence is to depart from past practices.
The new administration was inaugurated against many odds. Moon drew only 41 percent of the votes, which means nearly 6 in 10 voters did not support him. His Democratic Party of Korea is the largest group -- with 120 seats -- in the National Assembly, but still falls far short of attaining a 151-seat simple majority.
This means the Moon government and his party can do virtually nothing in the parliament without the help of opposition parties. Besides, having been elected in a by-election, Moon was not given the usual two-month transition period.
The opposition should take the extraordinary situation into consideration and cooperate -- instead of taking a revengeful and confrontational stance -- with the new administration at least for the first few months. What we mean is a sort of honeymoon period.
One possible area of such cooperation could be parliamentary vetting of senior administration officials nominated by the president.
Moon has nominated South Jeolla Province Gov. Lee Nak-yon for prime minister. The Constitution calls on the president to appoint Cabinet ministers upon the recommendation of the prime minister. This alone necessitates the opposition’s cooperation for a quick parliamentary action on Lee’s nomination.