The People’s Party and the Bareun Party are accelerating their work to join forces, setting their sights on the creation of a new reformative party by next month.
The two opposition parties launched a joint body to work on the union last week. One of their first agreements was that instead of simply merging the two parties, they would create a new party to which they would invite other centrist politicians who sympathize with their cause.
The road to the establishment of a new party faces many hurdles. The first one will be the fierce opposition by veteran members of the center-left People’s Party.
The dissenters, mostly lawmakers and members hailing from the generally liberal southwestern provinces, oppose alliance with the Bareun Party -- a party whose root is a conservative party based in the southeastern provinces -- because it would jeopardize their own political viability. Some lawmakers already publicly threatened to part with party leader Ahn Cheol-soo and create their own breakaway party.
They argue that seeking alliance with the Bareun Party, which progressives regard as part of the legacy of the failed Park presidency, goes against the wishes of voters who made Ahn‘s party -- which put forward a middle-of-the-road platform -- the third-largest party through the 2016 parliamentary elections.
The negative mood is less serious in the Bareun Party, built around former presidential candidate Yoo Seong-min and those who left the main conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party in the wake of the scandal that ousted former President Park Geun-hye. But Yoo and his supporters also have to overcome skepticism -- and possible departure -- of some senior members like Gyeonggi Governor Nam Kyung-pil and Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong, both potential presidential candidates.
Dissenters in the Bareun Party criticize the party leadership for abandoning the party’s political and ideological identity by tying up with a party many of whose members come from progressive backgrounds and whose home turfs are the southwestern provinces.
But the opponents tend to ignore the reality. The overriding fact is that both the two parties have been fast losing their political clout since Ahn and Yoo lost the presidential election. Moreover, Ahn has been struggling with persistent internal conflicts and Yoo had to see some of his colleagues go back to the Liberty Korea Party.
So it might have been inevitable for both Ahn and Yoo and their supporters to seek a political realignment ahead of the June 13 local elections. In fact, some public opinion surveys already show that the two parties put together will obtain greater voter support than the Liberty Korea Party.
Although it cannot be denied that both Ahn and Yoo seek alliance to raise their political fortunes through the quadrennial gubernatorial and mayoral elections, their move could have positive impacts on Korean politics in general.
Most of all, the envisaged party could help break the time-old two-party mold of Korean politics, namely domination of a conservative party whose base is in southeastern provinces and a progressive party whose home turf is the southwestern provinces.
Its consequences are the ideological, factional and regional confrontations as we have seen over the past decades. The power turnovers between conservatives and progressives since the 1990s have been unable to alleviate the political polarization.
The 2016 parliamentary election that catapulted the People’s Party into the third-largest party with 39 National Assembly seats was the confirmation of Koreans’ hope to have a party that is different from a conservative party teeming with old guards bent on their vested interests and a progressive party whose radicalism caters only to its loyal supporters.
It has yet to be seen how the work to unite the People’s Party and the Bareun Party -- and draw more centrists -- will go. What is certain, however, is that it will offer another test for Korean politics. There are good reasons to hope that the test will be successful.