With less than two months before the general election on April 15, the main opposition Liberty Korea Party and two minor parties launched a merged conservative party on Monday.
The formation of the tentatively named Party for United Future represents a partial success following months of efforts to build a big tent embracing conservative and centrist forces to defeat the ruling Democratic Party of Korea in the upcoming election.
Though joined by some right-leaning civic activists, the merged party may be seen as going little further beyond rebuilding the now-defunct Saenuri Party, which broke up in the wake of the Constitutional Court’s decision to oust scandal-ridden President Park Geun-hye in 2017.
Hwang Kyo-ahn, chairman of the Liberty Korea Party, who served as prime minister in the Park administration, is at the helm of the merged party that will represent 113 seats in the 300-member National Assembly.
The new main opposition party is seeking to win the election by framing it as a judgment of what it denounces as the increasingly arbitrary and reckless way in which President Moon Jae-in and the ruling party have handled state affairs.
The outcome of an opinion poll conducted last week sends an encouraging sign to the conservative bloc. Forty-five percent of respondents agreed on the need to keep the incumbent government in check, compared to 43 percent who supported it. In previous polls, the view in favor of the Moon government prevailed over the stance against it by more or less 10 percent.
But the mere merger of conservative parties cannot be expected to draw voter support automatically.
The merged party should put forward concrete values, visions and alternatives to the Moon government’s misguided policies.
It is also important to field as many fresh and competent figures as possible in the parliamentary election. So far, 19 seasoned lawmakers of the conservative bloc have declared they will not run in the election to give way to younger candidates. More senior legislators need to follow suit.
The merged party should continue to try to expand its boundaries to attract centrist forces into its fold.
Voter sentiment has turned increasingly negative to the Moon government as the economic slump is deepening and the North Korean nuclear issue remains far from being resolved. Moon and his aides cling to misguided policies despite mounting calls on them to change course.
Last year, the ruling party joined with three minor pro-government liberal and progressive parties to pass controversial bills, ignoring objections from the Liberty Korea Party and another conservative opposition party.
What has exacerbated public sentiment is Moon’s silence to the outcome of a recent prosecutorial investigation that led to the indictment of 13 of presidential aides for being involved in illicit support for a ruling party candidate closely associated with him in the 2018 local election.
The division in the conservative bloc appears to have made the Moon government bolder in going its own way since it replaced the Park administration in 2017.
Conservative lawmakers, mostly complacent with their vested interests, were split between those who voted for Park’s impeachment and others who voted against it.
Many voters have become disillusioned with the Moon government, but have remained reluctant to support the divisive conservative bloc.
Now the merged party is tasked with putting the brakes on the Moon government’s insistence on going its own way.
During its launch ceremony, the party announced a five-point platform that it says is designed to put the country back on track to uphold the nation’s constitutional values, which critics argue have been undermined since Moon took office.
The merged party needs to be more active in modifying itself to attract moderate undecided voters, who are expected to hold the key to the election outcome.
A centrist party being formed by Ahn Cheol-soo, a former presidential candidate, is poised to compete with it in occupying the middle ground.
Ahn has so far shown no interest in merging his envisioned party with the conservative bloc.
Still, the new merged party will have to continue efforts to join forces with Ahn and his supporters, if it wants to ensure an election outcome that could keep the ruling party at bay. If it is necessary to build a bigger tent, Hwang need not cling to the leadership post of the merged party.