The nation’s conservative forces are still in disarray, 18 months after the presidential election in which they yielded power to a liberal president and five months after they suffered their most humiliating defeat ever in the local elections.
One big problem with the failure of the conservatives to recover from the election defeats, which stemmed from the ouster of the impeached President Park Geun-hye, is that it gives the Moon Jae-in administration a virtual free hand to run the nation.
The lack of counterbalance allows the government to wield unilateral powers in pushing controversial leftist policy lines, including a rapid increase of the legal minimum wage, reduction of workweek and a shift away from atomic energy. Dealing with North Korea and ending the threat from its nuclear and missile programs is another area in which the government ignores the opposition’s call for patience and a cautious approach.
The biggest cause of the failure of the conservatives to resuscitate themselves is the lack of progress in reforming the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, which has been the buttress of the conservative forces in the country.
In the wake of the defeat in the June local elections, the party launched an interim leadership headed by Kim Byong-joon, a former university professor, with a call for a rebirth of the party. The call still remains a call, with the party’s reform efforts stagnating.
A latest trouble at the party came last week when Kim kicked out a popular lawyer to whom the party entrusted work to reappoint or replace the heads of all the 253 parliamentary electoral districts across the country. The party’s district chapters are headed by either incumbent lawmakers or those who hope to run in the next general elections scheduled for 2020.
On the surface, Kim and Jun Won-tchack were at odds over when to hold national convention to elect a new leader who will have the right to nominate candidates for the 2020 parliamentary elections. Kim wanted to hold the convention next February, as scheduled, while Jun insisted on June or July, saying that he needed more time to select heads of the district chapter heads.
A closer look at the conflict between the two, however, shows that their differences are deeper and more numerous. First, Jun, a maverick who earned fame as a far-right television panelist and commentator, suspects that Kim insists on an early national convention because that could retain many of the 95 incumbent lawmakers, which would raise the interim leader’s chances of clinching the new party leadership.
A more deeply ingrained difference between the two, however, centers on a more fundamental question: How to reform the party and rebuild the conservative forces as a whole.
Jun argued the party needed more time before the national convention in order to pull together all conservatives, including the loyal supporters of the unpopular former leader Park. He even called for a “thoroughgoing debate with unlimited time” over the legitimacy of ousting Park on impeachment. This rekindled confrontation between Park loyalists and anti-Park members in the party.
These cases show that Jun was not the right man for the job of reforming the party, whose first priority should be self-reflection on what went wrong with the Park presidency, during which it was the ruling party.
The debacle over Jun’s ouster should serve as a reminder for Kim and members of the party’s interim leadership council that real reform of the party hinges on purging itself of Park loyalists and incompetent lawmakers and district chapter heads.
Also important is bringing in new blood, including centrists and moderate progressives, to refresh its image as a bunch of staunch, far-right conservatives.
A recent public opinion survey found that the Liberty Korea Party is supported by 14 percent of voters, compared with 42 percent for the ruling Democratic Party of Korea. It is obvious what the unpopular party needs to do to restore public confidence in it and prop up conservative forces, which is essential for counterbalancing the unilateralism of the Moon government.