Nowadays the talk in Korean politics is of “mergers” or “alliances” between political parties. Some of the possible scenarios and suggestions have the chance of becoming reality as the parties gear up for next year’s local election.
It is not rare for Korean political parties to come and go through mergers and alliances prompted by political expediency. Most of the political realignments are implemented to bolster political clout or raise election gains at the expense of policy lines.
As a result, Korean parties have notoriously short life spans. Even the current ruling party -- a progressive group based on support from the southwestern region -- and the main opposition -- a conservative party whose home turf lies in the southeastern provinces -- have changed their names time and again.
Much of the ongoing talk of mergers and alliances, as in the past, is gaining momentum because a major election is approaching -- this time the local elections in June next year.
The first -- and so far most plausible -- idea is the merger of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party and minor opposition Bareun Party. The prime cause for proponents of the merger is unifying conservative forces that have been devastated recently.
On the surface, the proposal makes sense because the Bareun Party was formed by lawmakers who bolted from the Liberty Korea Party in the wake of the corruption and influence-peddling scandal that resulted in the fall of former President Park Geun-hye.
Park was removed from office, and is now in detention. She is paying the price for her wrongdoings. Some Bareun Party members may believe they are now entitled to return to the Liberty Korea Party they had deserted because of the party’s failure to cease ties with the disgraced former party leader.
Moreover, the Liberty Korea Party paved the way for a reunion with the Bareun Party as it took a concrete action to cut off ties with Park. The party’s ethics committee voted last week to demand Park voluntarily renounce her party membership.
But hurdles -- some of which may not be overcome in the long run -- remain, as seen by the reignited fierce feud between the party leader and former presidential candidate Hong Joon-pyo and Park loyalists like Suh Chung-won and Choi Kyung-hwan.
The Bareun Party is also divided between those who want the party to merge with the Liberty Korea Party, including former Liberty Korea Party leader Kim Moo-sung, and those who oppose the idea, including former presidential candidate Yoo Seong-min.
The second scenario is the merger of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and minor opposition People’s Party. Given that the People’s Party was built by those who abandoned the Democratic Party over internal feuds, it would reunite liberal political forces in such a way that a Liberty Korea Party and Bareun Party merger would for conservatives.
The scheme has hindrances too. Former People’s Party leader and presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, who led the creation of the party, is more inclined toward a merger with the Bareun Party. The ruling party, buoyed by the high popularity of President Moon Jae-in, also may not seek any merger or alliance ahead of the election.
The third -- and the most desirable scenario for a sound development of Korean politics -- is the aforementioned merger of the Bareun Party and the People’s Party. Such a merger would draw reformist conservatives and moderate liberals together. It would gain more strength if some Liberty Korea Party lawmakers join forces.
There are obstacles to that suggestion too. Most of all, the Bareun Party’s Yoo demanded the People’s Party sever ties with senior members from the southwestern provinces, a major political base for the ruling party.
Yoo and his colleagues also have to overcome opposition from party members calling for a merger with the Liberty Korea Party to resuscitate the conservative forces.
But Yoo and other party members who want to team up with the People’s Party should be cheered on, because a merger of the two parties would break the decadeslong bipolarization of Korean politics featuring a conservative party based in the southeastern provinces and a liberal party based in the rival southwestern provinces. The time has come for Korea to have a party that distinguishes itself from the two parties that have dominated politics for too long.