Korean party politics is in bad shape. The June 13 local elections and the 12 parliamentary by-elections simply showed how bad it is.
The biggest concern is that the uneven playing field caused by the lopsided victory of the ruling party will continue to remain at least until the 2020 parliamentary election. That means Korean politics will be largely devoid of checks and balances, the quintessential element of a healthy democracy.
The biggest blame should be placed on the dismal performance of the opposition parties, not least the main opposition Liberty Korea Party. Voters simply shunned the oppositionists who failed to break from the legacy of the disgraced presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.
Then without soul searching and self-reflection, and instead of pursuing reform and a revamp, the party leaders and members only tried to protect their vested interests and opposed the Moon government for the sake of opposition, without providing policy alternatives.
In the absence of new blood and platforms that can appeal to voters, the conservative Liberty Korea Party helplessly turned over much of its traditional turf to Moon’s liberal ruling party.
As is with a party that suffered a big election loss, members of the Liberty Korea Party, the minor opposition Bareunmirae Party and the Party for Democracy and Peace began discussions about what steps they should take to get over the crisis.
On Friday, the 41 first-term lawmakers of the Liberty Korea Party held a separate meeting, with some of them demanding senior party members take responsibility for the election loss and leave the party. Any such call should have been made much earlier, long before the elections.
Given our experiences, the opposition parties would go through the usual path: Resignation of top leaders (this has happened already at all parties), formation of interim leadership and election of new leaders who will pledge the rebirth of their parties. In view of the level of voters’ antipathy toward them, all such cosmetic changes would not work this time.
They need painful efforts to regain public support. They should kick out old guards, bring in new blood, enhance in-house democracy and the decision-making process and realign their platforms and ideological lines in a way to accommodate a broader base of voters.
Another negative aspect of the current political landscape is the lack of a robust third party. Both the center-right Bareunmirae Party and the center-left Party for Democracy and Peace failed to live up to their hope to emerge as a party to be reckoned with through the first major elections since President Moon Jae-in took office in May last year.
The fall of Bareunmirae is more disappointing, because the union of its moderate conservative leader Yoo Seong-min and the centrist Ahn Cheol-soo, both former presidential candidates, had raised hopes for giving the nation a new center-right group that can help buttress the conservative ground that had been devastated by the ouster of Park.
All in all, any usual self-reform measures may not be effective enough to resuscitate the opposition forces, which is why talk of new political realignment flourishes. The most plausible idea is merging the Liberty Korea Party with Bareunmirae. The ruling party may counter by seeking to absorb the liberal splinter Party for Democracy and Peace.
Anyway, rehabilitation of the opposition groups is urgent in that the elections gave a free hand to the Moon government and his ruling party in both the central and local politics. The ruling Democratic Party’s dominance is so overwhelming that in many local councils, opposition parties could not form a negotiation bloc. A political realignment that can elevate the opposition’s power to ensure checks and balances is worth pursuing in that sense.
A lack of healthy opposition is bad for everyone, including the ruling camp. Look at what happened in the Park administration which encountered a tragic demise due to its unilateral way of governing. Quick resuscitation of the opposition forces is urgent.