The main opposition Democratic Party is set to hold a national congress on Sunday to determine whether or not it will disband itself for a merger with a group of political, social and labor activists. Either way, its decision will have a great impact on the general and presidential elections next year.
The party’s proposed merger with the activist group, which goes by the name of “Innovation and Integration,” is an attempt to unite politicians and political activists that were close to the two late presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.
No wonder Kim and Roh have often been mentioned in the merger process. If a new party is created by the two forces, it will have a good chance of winning the next general and presidential elections. True, social, civic and labor activists are included in the merger plan. But their influence is limited.
If the new party is successfully launched, the two groups will undoubtedly seek the participation of Park Won-soon, a civic activist who was recently elected Seoul mayor, and Ahn Cheol-soo, a professor at Seoul National University.
Ahn, formerly a doctor and software developer, has been preaching social reform and, by doing so, gained fame from among young people with no faith in party politics. He gave birth to what is called the “Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon” when he supported the mayoral candidacy to Park, paving the way for the civic activist’s election as an independent on Oct. 26.
The two have since emerged as the leading icons of political and social reform. Park’s election to the powerful post of Seoul mayor and Ahn’s soaring popularity as a potential presidential candidate are pressuring not just the opposition party but also the ruling Grand National Party to make a choice between change and obsolescence.
As the ruling party is now groping for a change, the Democratic Party has endorsed in principle a proposal to dissolve itself and create a new party with the Innovation and Integration group. As is often the case, however, the proponents have found that the devil is in the details.
The main sticking point is how to elect the leadership of the new party. It would be a matter of course for deputies to select the party leader and other senior officeholders at a national convention if the party is one that functions normally. But the new party would be created through a merger between a party with its grassroots well organized and a political group that has yet to organize its grassroots support base.
In other words, the playing field would not be level if voting were to be limited to membership holders or their deputies. That is the reason why the Innovation and Integration group is demanding that the election be opened to citizens supporting the cause of the new party. It believes it can rely on young people for support.
Rep. Sohn Hak-kyu, chairman of the Democratic Party, has agreed to the proposal to open the voting to citizens, to the chagrin of Rep. Park Jie-won, who insists that it be limited to party members. He had been considered a potential contender for the Democratic Party’s chairmanship until merger talks started recently.
A former floor leader of the Democratic Party and one of former President Kim’s protgs, Park says he will seek to vote down the party’s merger plan at the national convention. But he will have to think twice before making such an attempt. He will be damned if he fails in his attempt. Nor will he find himself in an enviable position if he succeeds in scuttling the merger plan because he will be the target of denunciation by those desiring a change in government.
Park should be reminded what happened when a presidential election was held in 1987 to end the military-backed authoritarian rule of Chun Doo-hwan. His mentor, freedom fighter Kim Dae-jung, and Kim Young-sam, another leading dissident who fought for the nation’s democracy, shared the blame when they went their separate ways and ceded the presidential election to Roh Tae-woo, who had supported Chun in the 1980 military coup as an Army general.