The nation’s political parties are in a state of flux. Party leaderships are in serious disarray and analysts see the possibility of a major regrouping when parliamentary and presidential votes draw near. Popularity ratings fluctuate wildly while President Lee Myung-bak’s approval rate keeps sliding.
The ruling Grand National Party’s by-election loss last month in Bundang, long considered a conservative bastion, led to the early departure of the party chairman and the surprise election of an underdog as the new floor leader. The president’s party now faces the worst factional strife since it clinched power in the December 2007 vote. At least four rival groups are jockeying for party control while the president keeps his distance from each of them.
The main opposition Democratic Party is still in an ecstatic mood after its chairman Sohn Hak-kyu clinched Bundang in the April 27 vote. The leftist party overtook the GNP in popularity for the first time in the latest opinion poll. Yet, Sohn exposed a disappointing lack of leadership over the handling of the Korea-EU free trade agreement bill. Rhyu Si-min of the National Participatory Party, an offshoot from the DP, is mounting an effective challenge to become the opposition torch-bearer.
Suddenly on Monday, Lee Hoi-chang resigned as chairman of the conservative Liberty Forward Party, saying that he would look at national politics beyond the confines of the Chungcheong Province-based party. People in and outside the party took his remarks as indicating a fourth bid for presidency. Now the two conservative parties are run by emergency committees.
About 40 young Turks in the GNP joined the Park Geun-hye faction to support Hwang Woo-yea in the election of the floor leader. They are now openly demanding that the emergency committee appointed by the outgoing executive body concede its functions to the new floor leader so that he can prepare the party general convention in the fairest manner. In the meantime, schism in the loyalists for the president deepened as Lee Jae-oh blamed Lee Sang-deuk for abandoning his choice and clandestinely endorsing Hwang.
All these complex developments testify to the immaturity of our political parties for democratic operation despite the passage of two decades following the end of military dictatorships. Yet, a more immediate cause, in the case of the ruling party, is the formidable personal antagonism between President Lee and Park, the top contender in the 2007 presidential nomination.
Park, commanding the highest popularity rate of over 30 percent in the latest poll, is no doubt the strongest candidate for the December 2012 presidential election. The present conflicts in the GNP boil down to a contest between the present and future powers, focused on the right to nominate candidates for the National Assembly elections next spring. The young reformists’ call for a totally bottom-up process to replace the traditional top-down nomination system has strong justification, although it is another cause of the internal trouble.
President Lee is fundamentally responsible for resolving these problems but his ammunition is running out. His has to seek a genuine reconciliation with Park Geun-hye and then stay a fair umpire and arbitrator on the worsening contest between the so-called pro-Lee and pro-Park groups. He may have little to fear about his future particularly with regard to family-related irregularities which had haunted his predecessors, but he should most anxiously try to avoid the misfortune of seeing the governing party break apart while in office.