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Ruling, opposition leaders suffer from FTA side effects

The National Assembly’s passage of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement bill on Tuesday left leaders of the Grand National Party and Democratic Party facing challenges in their leadership ahead of big elections next year.

GNP chairman Rep. Hong Joon-pyo masterminded the party’s blitz FTA vote.

Though the bill was expected to be put to vote on Thursday, he met with floor leader Rep. Hwang Woo-yea late on Monday and persuaded him that further discussions would be of no use, according to party officials.

Hwang, who insisted on a peaceful and democratic vote, reluctantly agreed and urged all lawmakers of the party to participate in the budget-related general meeting on Tuesday afternoon.

After an unsuccessful eleventh-hour negotiation with his DP counterpart Rep. Kim Jin-pyo, Hong requested parliamentary speaker Park Hee-tae to put the issue to a vote using his authority. These behind-the-scenes developments were left hidden even to most GNP lawmakers up until the last minute.

The discussions were only shared by Hong, Hwang, vice floor leader Lee Myung-gyu and secretary-general Kim Chung-kwon, in an attempt to preempt the opposition camp’s opposition expected on Thursday.

“We only made an inevitable choice for the sake of our nation and people,” said the party spokesperson.

The ruling party, after a series of election defeats and internal division this year, has been criticized for being indecisive and inconsistent in its actions, but Hong’s lead on the FTA issue is likely to quell some of that discontent.

The prosecutor-turned-politician also managed to compromise with the party’s dovish lawmakers and convince them to take part in the surprise vote.

He, however, now faces opposition and public backlash with the risk of voters turning against the GNP in next year’s elections.

Sohn, who was attending a book publication party at the crucial hour, rushed to join the emergency plenary session but could do little to prevent the GNP from passing the bill.

He thus faced criticism from minority progressive parties, which unconditionally vetoed the free trade pact itself and with which he planned to consolidate within the year.

Party members also blamed him for failing to counter the GNP’s actions.

In an urgent late night meeting on Tuesday, Supreme Council member Rep. Chung Dong-young and others requested that Sohn take responsibility and step down, though it was agreed that resignation was not an immediate priority in the given circumstances.

Lawmakers who disagreed with Sohn’s unified opposition blueprint also raised doubts about Sohn’s leadership.

Some observers speculated that a left-wing unified camp may gain momentum as the forceful ratification reinforced antipathy toward the GNP and the Lee Myung-bak administration.

Both the GNP and the DP are nevertheless left to deal with the public’s broken trust with current politics, which may act as a boost to potential rookies such as professor Ahn Cheol-soo or Hansun Foundation chairman Park Se-il.

By Bae Hyun-jung (