In 2017, the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea had high hopes. Taking power after the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, some in the party had expressed hopes it would remain the ruling party for at least 20 years.
The party got off to a stellar start, dominating the elections that followed. It seemingly had nothing to fear, since the conservative bloc shattered to pieces in the wake of the historical political event.
The Democratic Party’s dominance, however, has evaporated into thin air.
On Wednesday, the conservative bloc swept the local elections, taking control of the central government as well as local administrative units.
The conservatives had suffered humiliation in elections and internal turmoil for years to reach where it is today, and perhaps its journey is what the Democratic Party should take into account in preparing its own itinerary of apologies, reforms and overhauls.
The road it must take now will be painful, as many overarching reform measures have been for major political parties before gaining the power to fight shoulder to shoulder in presidential elections.
For three years following Park’s impeachment, chaos reigned in the conservative bloc, resulting in the liberal bloc taking some 180 out of 300 seats at the National Assembly, not to mention conservatives losing the presidential race in 2017 and the local elections the following year.
The party since electing its new leader has drawn a clear distinction from far-right extremists and promoted younger talent to join its forces while carrying out reforms focused on justice, impartiality and meritocracy, attempting to show voters the party has changed.
The ruling People Power Party’s political philosophy and its appropriateness are debatable, but it is indisputable that the new direction has helped the party win three elections in a row –the mayoral by-elections in April 2021, the presidential election in March and the local elections last week.
The party’s decision to go with Yoon Suk-yeol, a political novice who was the main force behind Park’s impeachment, as its presidential nominee shows the party was willing to make sacrifices and take risks to increase chances of victory for the group.
The Democratic Party’s path does not necessarily need to be the same, but the liberal party should keep in mind that the path must be accompanied with sacrifices and the alignment of new directions and philosophies that are relatable to regular voters.
The liberal bloc has to identify what kind of policy drives and political initiatives it can bring forth and meet the eyes of today’s voters, who are increasingly driven to choose beyond ideologies and party allegiance.
Today’s voters have long realized that cash incentives and appointing young political novices in vain leadership roles are the least of what constitutes solid, forward-moving reforms.
To bid for a successful comeback in the 2024 parliamentary elections, the party needs a united leadership and a firm commitment to clear the gutter and tear out rotten parts to impress voters.
The party and its key officials should have started the process in March after losing the presidential election, instead of finding comfort in the fact that its candidate Lee Jae-myung lost merely by 0.73 percentage point.
They must see that consecutive election defeats do not simply come down to the candidates, but that the reasons run deeper, and they need to find out why the party has avoided real reform.
This self-realization, however, seems unlikely, as the party members are divided into groups, each fighting to assign blame to the other, looking to oust key figures in opposing groups and fighting over who should be the new leader in a time of uncertainty.
Although apologies were issued, nobody has really wanted to assume responsibility for the series of defeats. Legislators have been fighting over who was right or wrong in having Lee Jae-myung take the steering wheel.
The party is set to pick a new leader in August. It seems the debate over who to blame instead of what to do is likely to continue for the time being. Pro-Lee group members are fighting to protect Lee for the next presidential race, and others are fighting to drag him down and take over.
With party members so divided, and as a power struggle continues between supporters of Lee and others, the Democratic Party is unlikely to grow into a united force in the near future. Perhaps it could see its power end in vain as was the case for the Liberty Korea Party, the predecessor of the People Power Party.
Maybe then the party will realize it has gone too far and distance itself from the tumultuous past of fighting over who to guide the rudder of a sinking ship.
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org