The majority opposition Democratic Party of Korea is grappling with the aftermath of the National Assembly’s vote on the prosecution’s request for consent to a pretrial detention hearing on its leader Lee Jae-myung.
Before the vote, the party leadership was confident of an overwhelming rejection of the request, but the result jolted them.
The request was thrown out as the number of yes votes fell short of the minimum required to hold the hearing. But unexpectedly, the secret vote split 139 in favor to 138 against, with nine abstentions and 11 invalid. Considering the party holds 169 of the 300 seats of the National Assembly and that all of them turned out to vote, about 30 lawmakers of the party are estimated to have cast votes in favor, invalid votes or abstained. In Korea, the prosecution is required to seek consent from the National Assembly on the detention of its members when the Assembly is in session. This is a privilege for Korean lawmakers.
The vote result is a wake-up call to the party that a significant number of its lawmakers do not agree on protecting Lee from his personal judicial risks. He faces breach of trust and bribery charges in connection with a land development scandal and donations to a municipal soccer club. The cases happened when he was mayor of Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province.
Upon the vote result, the court automatically dropped the prosecution’s request for a detention hearing on Lee, but the unexpectedly wide deviation from what the party leadership hoped for was exposed. Lee and the party should introspect humbly.
However, the party leadership and lawmakers in Lee’s faction seldom showed a humble attitude to the vote outcome. A lawmaker close to him said that those lawmakers in Lee’s lane could not go together with those who are not, and that they should leave the party voluntarily.
A lawmaker not in Lee’s lane said that the deviation may be the tip of the iceberg, and that if Lee’s judicial risks remain until the general elections next year, the damage to the party would be fatal.
Lee’s hard-line supporters tried to find out the lawmakers of the party whom they suspected had cast their votes against his possible detention. They condemned those lawmakers as “reactionaries,” “rebels” and “traitors” and bombarded them with malicious text online. They listed the names, constituencies and phone numbers of about 40 lawmakers not in Lee’s faction in efforts to reveal "the roster of rebels." The party name contains "democratic," yet their behavior was far from democratic.
Lee’s charges are all about his personal corruption allegations. Most of the Democratic Party lawmakers knew little about them before media reports came out. It is natural to oppose the party’s push to mobilize all of its lawmakers to cover up for him.
The vote outcome also reflects a growing sense of crisis that if the party fails to shed an impression that it has been privatized by Lee to protect himself from the prosecution’s investigations, its loss in the general elections will be inevitable.
The prosecution will likely request the parliament’s consent to a detention hearing on Lee in connection with other allegations. Even if the Democratic Party-dominated legislature rejects all of the prosecution’s additional requests, Lee will have to stand before the court if indicted. Quite a few lawmakers have questioned if he can lead their party while being tried on many charges. But Lee says he will not resign as the party leader.
What Lee can do to save the party from the fallout of his legal entanglements when the prosecution requests the National Assembly’s consent to his detention hearing again is to give up the privilege of avoiding a pretrial detention hearing, as he pledged to do during his presidential campaign.
If he asserts his innocence, he has no reason to hide behind the privilege and his fellow lawmakers. He should let the court render its judgment. The party will have a better future when it is not swayed by his fervent supporters and listens to lawmakers who voice reasonable views.