Members of the ruling People Power Party including Chairman Lee Jun-seok (right) and floor leader Rep. Kweon Seong-dong (left) cheer as they watch the exit poll results at the National Assembly in Seoul on June 1. (Yonhap)
Witnessing members of the ruling People Power Party rejoicing on June 1 after their crushing victory in the local elections, it seemed the party was set for smooth sailing, at least until the end of this year.
But the party already appears to be breaking up into factions, and the ongoing power struggle between close aides of President Yoon Suk-yeol and others including People Power Party Chairman Lee Jun-seok shows the conservative bloc could be headed for another dark age.
Rep. Chang Je-won, a People Power Party legislator who is seen as one of Yoon’s closest allies, started a “study group” last month. Around 50 People Power Party legislators attended the study group’s first meeting on June 27.
The meeting gained much attention as Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo, who is widely expected to run in the next election for party chairman, was in a front row seat just inches away from Chang. It fanned speculation that Ahn was joining forces with Yoon and his aides to succeed Lee as chairman of the ruling party.
Just days earlier, Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon, the party’s former floor leader, launched a study group under his name, and 46 of the party’s Assembly members joined its first meeting. Kim is also touted as a potential candidate for party chairman.
The study groups, which are typically rallying points for groups of political allies, have formed as if Lee is about to step down. Attempts have been made to drag Lee down and possibly start the next national convention earlier than scheduled. Lee has vowed to stay put and finish his term, but an ethics panel could change things.
Lee’s push to reform nomination guidelines and overhaul the current power structure has been met with strong resistance from traditional party heavyweights, many of whom are Yoon supporters.
The whole process behind moving to penalize Lee, over allegations still under investigation, has been controversial and wildly political. Many in political circles interpret it as a move by pro-Yoon supporters to strip Lee of power in fear of losing their own.
The growing divide is strikingly similar to the path the conservative party took since 2007 that ultimately led to its demise.
Allies of former President Park Geun-hye -- the pro-Park faction -- clashed with the pro-Lee faction, the allies of former President Lee Myung-bak.
Lee Myung-bak and Park, both charismatic and powerful figures in the conservative party, spent years fighting over control of the party. Power shifted from Park to Lee and back over the course of elections, and both went on to become president.
But the party suffered in the end from all the infighting, and eventually fractured into smaller pieces. It then lost control of the National Assembly in 2016, and Park’s remaining supporters were unable to prevent Park’s impeachment in 2017.
This worked in favor of the Democratic Party of Korea, and fueled Moon Jae-in’s rise to the presidency. The Democratic Party also dominated the 21st legislative elections in 2020, which still haunts the ruling party and holds back the Yoon administration.
The People Power Party must remember that the development of factions is the start of a tragic end. Signs of this are also seen in the Democratic Party, where the pro-Moon faction is clashing with those aligned with Rep. Lee Jae-myung.
If factions grow to the point of swaying the whole party, parties could lose touch with the people and fail to serve the role it was built to pursue. Politicians would be busy fighting for power while average citizens fight to put food on the table.
Anyone interested in the political dynamics of South Korea can understand the hardships the conservative party went through after such an astonishing collapse. If the factions grow, it may only take another five years for it to lose power once again.
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org