Will new leader turn around Liberty Korea Party?

By Korea Herald

Embattled right wing to elect new chief; Hong Joon-pyo favorite to win

Published : Jul 2, 2017 - 21:39
Updated : Jul 2, 2017 - 21:42

The Liberty Korea Party’s attempt to communicate with the public through an acrostic poem contest has turned into a major PR disaster.

Instead of stirring up interest in South Korea’s largest opposition party, the event saw an avalanche of entries disparaging and belittling it. It has virtually become a contest of creative mockeries of the once-ruling right wing, an embarrassing public display of the deep quandary it is now in. 

Hong Joon-pyo (Yonhap)


In a public survey released Friday by Gallup Korea, the party, which controls over a third of the National Assembly’s 299 seats, scored a humiliating 7 percent in public support, against the ruling Democratic Party of Korea’s 48 percent.

For the first time, it trailed the Bareun Party, a 20-seat conservative group that split from it last year, which recorded 9 percent. At 7 percent, the Liberty Korea Party tied with the Justice Party, a miniscule far-left group holding six parliamentary seats.

“Once the most popular party representing conservative values, the Liberty Korea Party is no longer viewed that way in the eyes of voters,” Jun Kye-wan, a political commentator, told The Korea Herald.

“People naturally relate the party to the now jailed former President Park Geun-hye and her corruption scandal.”



Backed by loyal supporters, loathed by many others



In power for nearly a decade, the Liberty Korea Party has survived numerous scandals and political setbacks, changing its name from the Grand National Party to the Saenuri Party to its current name. And the party’s support base has remained more or less unchanged.

But the recent fall of former President Park, who had long embodied the right wing’s political values, has done damage for which there seems to be no quick fix.

A further look at the aforementioned Gallup survey reveals how deep the trouble is.

Only 3 percent and 2 percent of voters in their 20s and 30s, respectively, said they support the Liberty Korea Party. Its smaller conservative rival, the Bareun Party, did better in winning over voters of that age group. It garnered 12 percent from voters in their 20s and 8 percent from those in their 30s.

The Liberty Korea Party’s performance in its stronghold regions was poor, barely securing 10 percent in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province. In Busan and South Gyeongsang Province, another conservative hotbed, the figure stood at 12 percent.

A 33-year-old office worker, who identified himself as a conservative, feels a vast majority of the public has turned hostile toward the Liberty Korea Party.

“I cannot openly say that I support the party anymore,” he said, requesting his name not be mentioned.

“I think the conservatives have lost their identity. They are so absorbed in factional disputes within and outside the party,” he said.

Jang Kyung-sang, a party member since 1990s, harshly criticized the party for failing to strictly evaluate its past faults and reflect on them after the stormy scandal involving former President Park, which led to her expulsion from power and the election of a new president, the liberal Moon Jae-in.

“Discussions here are only on how to win an edge over the rival camp, not on how to win back public trust,” Jang, the secretary-general of a private institute on state affairs management, said at a forum hosted by the party on June 13.

The only way to rehabilitate the party from its current state is to put priority on true conservative values and listen to the needs of voters, he stressed.

Some experts also highlighted that the conservative party is still fixated on a political power game, without taking notice of the changing political trend in South Korea and around the world.

“The anti-politics sentiment is prevalent across the world. Voters wary of the establishment are showing their passive resistance against vested politicians,” said Lee Hae-young, an international relations professor at Hanshin University.

The election victories of France’s youngest president, Emmanuel Macron, and US President Donald Trump, who was formerly a business tycoon, also reflect such a trend, Lee explained.

“President Moon’s liberal government is not distinctively new or different from the past, but it has changed its attitude and renewed some values to win over voters. The conservatives should also come up with a new conservative identity that can really represent the demands of citizens,” Lee said.



Ways to reform



Luckily for the Liberty Korea Party, the next parliamentary elections are three years away. Regardless of dismal voter support now, the party will hold on to its parliamentary presence until the next general election. But that does not mean the party will be spared the consequences of its soured relationship with voters during the next three years. Local elections will be held next June and influential positions such as the mayor of Seoul are at stake.

Party officials hope for a turnaround, with the election of new leadership, slated for Monday.

How to rebuild the party and win back public trust are focal issues of the leadership race.

The three contenders vying for the party’s chairmanship all echoed pledges to reform the party and cut connections with wrongdoings of the past.

The favorite to win is Hong Joon-pyo, who garnered 24 percent of votes as the party’s flagbearer in the May presidential election.

“During (this year’s) presidential election period, I thought to myself, ‘How did our conservative party come to near destruction?’” former South Gyeongsang Province Gov. Hong said at a candidate debate with first-and second-term lawmakers last month. “As I have been a member of the Liberty Korea Party for over 22 years now, I believe I should take on the evil role to revamp this conservative party (as the party chief).”

Known for his sharp tongue and hard-line stance, Hong cuts a conspicuous, but divisive figure. His opponents worry Hong might further scare away voters.

That is why his two rivals -- five-term lawmaker Won Yoo-chul and four-term legislator Shin Sang-jin -- stress unity and a balanced leadership to navigate the party in this difficult time.

So far, none of the three contenders have unveiled any concrete plan for reform. Their race has been a public display of internal feuds, with Hong not showing regard for his two contenders, who are not as known to the public and party members as he is. Hong boycotted a TV debate session with other candidates, saying the public is “disgusted by” the TV debates of politicians.

The slogan for Monday’s national convention of the Liberty Korea Party is “We will change.”

Yet, a reform that is bold and drastic enough to restore its past glory seems like a tall order, whoever comes out as the winner of the leadership race. 

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)

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The Korea Herald by Herald Corporation