The largest conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party is stepping up its organizational reform in preparation for gubernatorial and mayoral elections on June 13.
The party decided Sunday to strip four incumbent lawmakers of the leadership of their electoral districts. They include two key members of the faction close to ousted former President Park Geun-hye. The decision is seen as a move to cleanse the party of those close to Park.
The party is in a situation where it cannot but revamp its organization ahead of the elections. Its political base has been devastated by a massive corruption scandal involving Park and her confidante Choi Soon-sil, which led to candlelight protests, the impeachment of Park, Moon Jae-in’s election and his administration’s drive to uproot irregularities of the past conservative administrations.
Unless the party wins back conservative voters, who turned their backs on it over the scandal, it is almost certain to suffer losses in the elections. The only way it will win elections is if it unites and rebuilds the nation’s conservative forces. It is impossible to achieve the goal under the current organization. Revamping its organization is inevitable.
Those lawmakers who had given backing to the corrupt and incompetent Park government have sullied conservatism as a sloppy ideology and destroyed the party’s support base. Still, self-reproach and self-reflection are nowhere to be found in them. Their rationale for existence has become effectively extinct, together with the impeachment of Park and the change of regime. Their decline is expected to help the party get its act together in preparation for the elections.
Yet, the party will find it hard to unite the disordered conservative camp if it fails to show them a proper conservative identity. An ambiguous identity will derail efforts to rally public support. The party must cast away its image of acting to protect vested interests. Sharpening its identity is an urgent task facing its leadership.
The rallying cry of the party leader Hong Joon-pyo is putting an end to the “leftist era.” To do so, the party must be able to check populist policies with better and more convincing alternatives. If it is preoccupied with opposition for the sake of opposition, it will be difficult to win the hearts of conservatives, given the consistently high support rating for Moon hovering around 70 percent. The party needs to reflect on why it lagged 2 percentage points behind a much smaller Bareun Party in a recent opinion poll of Seoul voters. It must get rid of its identity as a party of stubborn right wingers and instead show an interactive, practical conservatism.
Rep. Kim Sung-tae, regarded as close to Hong, was elected as its new floor leader on Dec. 12. His election reflects an intraparty sentiment that the party must not be a pro-Park party again and that it has no other alternative but Hong’s leadership for now. Hong’s grip on the party is expected to strengthen.
Hong’s drive for organizational reform must be strong to recapture the hearts of conservatives, but it must not espouse the private interests of his coterie. If the fairness of reform is doubted, neither the party’s internal integration nor the restoration of its political base will come easily.
Popular aspirations for a proper conservative party are greater than ever. That’s why the minor Bareun Party of defectors from the Liberty Korea Party still attracts attention despite the questionable prospects over its long-term existence. The current administration’s controversial North Korea policies and generous welfare programs worry conservative voters. It is a chance for the party. However, election wins will never come to a party that does nothing but wait for a windfall. They will come when the party draws up a blueprint for sweeping reforms and carry them out thoroughly.