[VIEWPOINT]GNP rift reveals fundamental problemsThe Grand National Party, whch enjoyed a landslide victory in the May 31 local elections, is suffering from internal dissension less than two months later. Even though lawmaker Lee Jae-oh, who went away to a Buddhist temple in Mount Jiri after his defeat to Kang Jae-sup in the party convention, has finally announced his decision to rejoin the party leadership, his disappearing act revealed the fundamental problems and serious fissures within the party.
In order to recapture political power, the party has to gain more votes from people who support ideologically middle-of-the-road politics, who belong to the middle class or grassroots, and from those who live in the Seoul metropolitan area.
However, the leaders of the party who were elected at the July 11 party convention fall squarely on the opposite side of those requirements.
Those who have taken the helm of the party belong to its hardline conservative faction, most of whom live affluent lives and hail mainly from Gyeongsang province.
If Mr. Lee - who was once an opposition leader and came from humble beginnings and whose constituency is Seoul’s Eunpyeong district - had been elected chairman of the party, the party would not today be saddled with the three weak points detailed above. And if Kwon Young-se, who ran for the leadership as the lone candidate from a younger reformist faction within the party, had been elected, the results might have meant far smoother sailing for the Grand Nationals.
However, the party did not elect Mr. Lee as chairman or Mr. Kwon as one of its leaders. What were the reasons that they failed to do so?
Mr. Lee, together with Kim Moon-soo, Park Kye-dong, Koh Jin-hwa, Won Hee-ryong and Park Heong-joon, represents a reform group within the party.
Mr. Lee is a poor man. He lives in a small rented house, taking care of his father-in-law who suffers from senile dementia. The house in which they live has no bathtub. His in-laws are also poor. He publicly told his son-in-law that he should not “expect to get help from his lawmaker father-in-law.”
In the Grand National Party, where there are many wealthy people, being poor has been, paradoxically, Mr. Lee’s strong point. When he competed against a man of means at a party convention in January this year to elect their floor leader, many lawmakers gave him their votes. But this month Mr. Lee failed to be elected as the chairman of the party.
First of all, he himself is responsible for the failure. He has never properly acknowledged the achievement of the so-called modernization generation in the 1960s, which constitutes the spirit of the Grand National Party.
At a training session for party members in August 2004, Mr. Lee criticized former party chairwoman Park Geun-hye even though she was sitting in the front row. In speaking about his political suffering, when he was tortured and jailed during the Yushin dictatorship under former President Park Chung Hee, he indirectly attacked the chairwoman. Ms. Park, who led the party to a landslide victory at the legislative elections in April of that year, had a bitter feeling of betrayal and her supporters have not forgotten the incident.
Mr. Lee’s claim that Ms. Park’s supporters tainted him is also controversial. He claimed that “the secretary general of the party and even the floor leader tainted this candidate with ideological color.”
Of course, such an action was a strategy of his rival camp within the party. In a situation wherein North Korean missiles have been fired, however, it was, to a certain degree, relevant to speak about the political identity of each candidate. Mr. Lee should have confronted the issue head on.
An assemblyman from the Seoul metropolitan area said, “Why can’t Mr. Lee speak openly about his position in the 1970s, when he participated in the preparatory committee for the South Korean liberation front and when he was in the Minjung Party, and [his position] now?”
Mr. Kwon and his group of young reformist lawmakers are also responsible for the weak points in the party. Younger groups should create a stir at the party convention, as if throwing a knife at the heart of the mainstream faction with its vested interests. But Mr. Kwon’s speech was insipid and he failed to strike the Achilles heel of the party.
Former Chairwoman Park is also responsible, to a certain degree, for Mr. Lee’s bolting away. When Mr. Lee was delivering his speech, Ms. Park rose from her seat and moved quite a distance. As the TV cameras and eyes of the representatives present followed her move, the convention was distracted. Mr. Lee was damaged by this. Instead of making an excuse that she had moved to prepare for “balloting,” Ms. Park should have apologized outright.
The party is entering another trial as people jeer that the Grand Nationals represent the return of the defunct Democratic Justice Party, which was the rubber stamp party for the military regime in the 1980s. Party Chairman Kang has to do his work under enormous pressure.
In his new position, he owes an enormous debt to the Republic of Korea. He was a member of the Wolgaesu-hoe, or laurel tree club, as the protege of its founder, Park Cheol-un, who was called the prince of the Sixth Republic under former President Roh Tae-woo. Wolgaesu-hoe created wholesale turmoil with its interventions into political decisions through bribery and corruption.
Although Mr. Kang was not directly involved in those scandals, he was nevertheless one of the beneficiaries. Mr. Kang’s constituency is in Daegu, the home ground of the Grand National Party, so he has seldom “tasted bread soaked with tears.” People may not remember that past, but Mr. Kang has to pay back the debts he owes to the nation with firm determination.
Mr. Lee is said to have been meditating at a Buddhist temple. He may have grievances that cannot be relieved by meditation. His decision to come back to the party is worth evaluating. And he must lead a sound opposition group within the party.
If he decides not to come back, he will be a politician who refuses to submit to the decisions of his party.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin