The railroading of four fast-track bills by two parliamentary panels early Tuesday morning -- and the five days of fierce political fighting that preceded it -- exposed all the ugly aspects of South Korean politics.
These include collusion of parties across political and ideological lines in pursuit of short-term gains; use of illegal and irregular means to ram through bills instead of seeking compromise with opponents; and turning the parliament into a battleground with shouts, curses and physical scuffles that even led to an allegation of sexual harassment.
One core element of what the ruling party called “reform bills” is overhauling the electoral system so that the three minor opposition parties aligned with it will gain more parliamentary seats through a new proportional representation system.
Another key point of the bills is the start of legislative moves to establish a new investigative agency for senior officials -- including prosecutors, judges and high-ranking police officers. Creation of the envisaged agency was one of President Moon Jae-in’s election promises aimed to rein in the state prosecution, which has long been criticized for wielding too much power and using it on behalf of the government in power.
In short, the ruling Democratic Party and the three opposition parties formed a sort of one-time coalition, effectively isolating the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, for a give-and-take deal. The biggest motive behind this improper alliance, of course, is the parliamentary election coming up in one year.
All in all, what happened over the past week reaffirmed once again that Korea is still in political backwaters. First, look at the way the four-party coalition tried to ram the bills through the two parliamentary panels -- one for political reform and the other for judiciary reform.
The political brawl started when the four parties, including the center-right Bareunmirae Party and left-wing Party for Democracy and Peace and Justice Party, agreed on the package deal to reform the electoral system and establish a new investigative agency.
Instead of seeking a compromise with the Liberty Korea Party, the coalition tried to railroad the bills unilaterally. In the course of doing this, it did not spare illegitimate or controversial means. One case in point is the Bareunmirae Party’s unilateral decision to replace two of its own representatives on the judiciary reform panel because they opposed the bills.
Then, Liberty Korea Party lawmakers and their assistants physically blocked each action the coalition tried to take next, including registration of the bills with the National Assembly Secretariat and the two panels’ attempts to convene.
What happened as a result were obnoxious physical confrontations, with lawmakers scuffling and lying down in the hallways to block sessions. Crowbars and claw hammers were brought in to force open the locked doors to the panels’ meeting rooms. Eventually, the two panels passed the bills in other meeting rooms in the absence of Liberty Korea Party members.
The physical confrontations, which lasted five days, triggered numerous lawsuits against each side. The Democratic Party has filed a complaint against 37 Liberty Korea Party lawmakers, accusing them of obstructing public duties at the parliament. The Justice Party also said it would take similar legal action against about 40 Liberty Korea Party members. In return, the Liberty Korea Party filed a countersuit against 16 coalition members.
One comical development was that the Liberty Korea Party filed suit against Speaker Moon Hee-sang for sexual harassment after he touched the cheeks of a female lawmaker during a physical confrontation.
What’s not comical is that the hordes of lawsuits, filed with the state prosecution, may remain a thorny issue for a long time, maybe until the parliamentary elections next April.
A more fundamental problem is that the formation of the four-party coalition distorts the political battle lines, which in normal situations should be aligned with ideological and policy lines, not short-term political gains.
It set a bad precedent when the Bareunmirae Party teamed up with leftist parties in pursuit of more parliamentary seats. Voters will need to deliver a fair judgment on what they heard and saw in the past week.