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[News Analysis] Major changes to unfold in political arena following local elections

Democratic Party has no option but to reform and overhaul, experts say

Ballots casted for the local electiosn held Wednesday are counted at a gymnasium in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap)
Ballots casted for the local electiosn held Wednesday are counted at a gymnasium in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap)
A raft of major changes is in store for South Korea’s political circle in the wake of local elections, with new faces likely to emerge as leaders of major parties moving forward.

For the main opposition Democratic Party, a sweeping reform has been in the works since the March presidential election defeat, but experts say something similar could also be demanded of the ruling People Power Party.

Following a crushing defeat for the Democratic Party in the local elections, where it won only five out of 17 metropolitan mayoral and provincial gubernatorial elections, the liberal party now faces a perilous path of turmoil, feuds and power struggles.

After three consecutive election defeats, the liberal bloc’s strong position in South Korean politics is now in serious danger. The blame game that was supposed to have concluded upon the presidential election in March is expected to return in full scale.

Voters have already seen a preview of the blame game unfold before the election took place, as Park Ji-hyun, co-chair of the emergency steering committee for the Democratic Party, faced headwinds for blaming the “586 Generation” on the party’s popularity loss.

The Wednesday election was already expected to be a difficult challenge for the Democratic Party, as the ruling People Power Party has been riding high on the public’s favorable reception toward the newly inaugurated Yoon Suk-yeol administration.

But the main opposition party made the election more difficult for itself than it needed to be, with its leaders failing to coalesce, with more high-profile sexual misconduct scandals came to light.

The Democratic Party’s path from here on is likely to consist of leaders taking “responsibility” and resigning from their posts within the faction, as is customary in South Korea for central figures to step down after facing dissatisfactory election outcomes.

Yet experts say Lee Jae-myung, the former presidential candidate of the Democratic Party who has now entered the National Assembly as a new first-term lawmaker, will remain at the center of the party, during and after reforms, as he is still considered the most likely figure to bear the party’s flag for the next presidential election.

“The Democratic Party has no choice but to push for Lee Jae-myung again as its leader; it doesn’t have anyone else to take the role and exert influence like he does now,” Eom Gyeong-yeong, head of local think tank Zeitgeist Institute, told The Korea Herald.

“But we do know for sure that virtually everyone else in leadership posts will be replaced with new figures.”

Lee is likely to bid for party chairmanship at the party’s national convention scheduled in August then gradually grow his influence within the party to run in the next presidential election without much internal opposition.

Eom and other experts believe the Democratic Party under Lee’s influence will search for new leaders to take over, and a new direction for the party to appeal to a greater range of voters. Some sacrifices will have to be made, they say, especially those with less experience in politics.

Many believe Park will be the easiest scapegoat, as her earlier criticism of party members embroiled in troubles put a target on her back. Some supporters believe that weakened the party’s position ahead of the local elections.

But Lee’s push to take the lead once again could face sizable opposition, as many want to him to be included in the group assuming “responsibility” and step away from center stage.

The Democratic Party was essentially annihilated in the local elections under Lee’s leadership as chief of the election campaign committee. Lee was seen spending most of his campaign days in Incheon instead of rallying support in other regions as he faced an unexpectedly close race against a much lesser-known candidate in the parliamentary by-election.

Some have raised the possibility of the so-called “pro-Moon Jae-in faction” returning to center stage, but the likelihood is contested among experts, as negative sentiment toward the Moon administration is at the root of the Democratic Party’s downfall in recent years.

Experts believe the Democratic Party will shift its strategic focus and eventually decide to comply with the Yoon administration and its initiatives in the meantime. Finding faults of the administration and the conservative bloc if these initiatives fail will be strategically beneficial.

Yet it is believed the Democratic Party will still use its power in the legislative branch by pushing to fill chairperson posts in major parliamentary committees with those favorable to the party until the next general elections take place.

“The Democratic Party is pushed to the corner, which means it has to somewhat comply and work with the People Power Party and the Yoon Suk-yeol government even though it has super majority in the legislative branch,” local political commentator Rhee Jong-hoon told The Korea Herald.

“Still it will choose what initiatives to comply with and what items to fight against. After all, the Democratic Party is the main opposition party, and that role comes with certain sets of responsibilities.”

The Democratic Party cleanup in the election aftermath would open a window of opportunity for the Yoon administration and the People Power Party to carry out the pledges made during the campaign that require approval from the Democratic Party-dominant National Assembly.

The liberal party’s crushing loss, even though it would not directly weaken its power in parliament, would be timely to aid the Yoon administration’s smooth political start, as the Democratic Party would be searching for ways to win back support from voters for later elections.

Some have speculated the successful outcome of the local elections will prompt the People Power Party to prepare for the next batch of leadership figures as Chairman Lee Jun-seok’s term comes to an end in June 2023.

Ahn Cheol-soo, after winning the parliamentary by-election for a constituency in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, is touted as a possible figure to try out for the next chairman election, and so is Rep. Chung Jin-suk, a five-term lawmaker with the ruling party with close ties to Yoon.

Lee Jun-seok may face pressure to resign from his post in light of allegations that he received sexual favors as bribes for two occasions in 2013. This may serve as a catalyst for the People Power Party to start an internal feud, experts say.

“There is a possibility that President Yoon Suk-yeol secretly requested the People Power Party to elect a new chairman who can show the best synergy with him moving forward,” Eom from the Zeitgeist Institute said.

“Lee Jun-seok faces pressure internally, and the president could start a call within the ruling party to open a nationwide convention to elect the new chairman.”

But with overwhelming success in the local elections, Lee Jun-seok has also solidified his foothold, painting himself as a master election campaign orchestrator who helped bag three consecutive wins for the party since April last year.

Lee Jun-seok’s bid for a legislative seat in the Nowon-gu constituency, northern Seoul -- where he started his political journey and failed to win three times in a row --is still likely to be on the table.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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