Roh allies emerge as key brokers in liberal merger

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Roh allies emerge as key brokers in liberal merger


Former Chief of Staff Moon Jae-in, right, and former Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan, center, visit the People’s Participation Party on Wednesday to meet Rhyu Si-min, former health minister. All three served in the Roh Moo-hyun administration. [YONHAP]

Hopes for a grand merger of the country’s various progressive factions ahead of next year’s elections may rest with a group of Roh Moo-hyun loyalists that has called for a new political party to encompass a wider swath of liberals.

With the chairman of the Democratic Party also trying to orchestrate a liberal merger, the two sides have started to engage in a delicate courtship dance, even as senior DP members balk at the plan for fear of seeing their own influence diminish.

Calling itself Innovation and Integration, the group was formed in September and has quickly emerged as a power broker of the nation’s left.

As of this month, the group counts 2,223 members, and with the recent membership of new Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, the group has added further legitimacy in eyes of many on the country’s left.

But the influence wielded by Innovation and Integration rests primarily with its 15 co-chairs, which counts within its ranks key aides to the former late president, including former Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan, former Chief of Staff Moon Jae-in, South Gyeongsang Governor Kim Doo-kwan and actor-turned-activist Moon Sung-keun. Also members of the leadership are six civic activists, four senior religious leaders and Cho Kuk, a high-profile liberal law professor at Seoul National University.

Actor Moon’s civic group, Power to the People, has some 180,000 members alone nationwide.

In just two months since the formation of Innovation and Integration, members have effectively established a national organization, with each member making a contribution of 50,000 won ($44) or more to fund a liberal merger and participating in events across the country to promote their calls for liberal unity. The group’s Daejeon chapter is to be launched today, and a public forum in Seoul is scheduled for next Saturday.

Political observers say that key to Innovation and Integration’s emergence as a power broker is the group’s potential to overcome the country’s long-standing political regionalism.

While South and North Jeolla have long been liberal strongholds, the main players in Innovation and Integration hail from Busan and the greater South Gyeongsang region - traditionally conservative bastions.

The prospect of a grand liberal merger encompassing both the country’s southwest and southeast has many liberals salivating.

Representative Chung Sye-kyun, a senior leader of the Democratic Party, once said a marriage between his party and Innovation and Integration would allow liberals to build a southern political belt connecting the Jeolla and Gyeongsang regions.

For many political observers, the main players in Innovation and Integration are a throwback to the now defunct Uri Party. But the group has made clear that it had no intention to make Innovation and Integration into a political party and that it only sought to unite the fractured left.

But efforts to create a grand liberal merger will largely depend on how Innovation and Integration and the Democratic Party decide to go forward, and whether Representative Sohn Hak-kyu, chairman of the Democratic Party, can persuade his party’s senior members to go along with the plan.

Sohn has already begun courting the new group, hoping to bring it into the fold as part of his own efforts to orchestrate a liberal merger.

Last week, the chairman proposed that Innovation and Integration be invited to his party’s leadership election, scheduled for next month, so that the two groups can jointly elect the new leadership.

But senior members within Sohn’s ranks - especially Kim Dae-jung loyalists - have protested the proposal out of concern that Roh loyalists would take over the main opposition party.

At the forefront of the Democratic Party’s pushback is Representative Park Jie-won, the party’s former floor leader and a key aide to former President Kim Dae-jung, who many believe is eyeing the chairmanship position.

On Sunday, Park hosted a meeting of 25 Democratic Party lawmakers and criticized Sohn’s proposal, demanding that the main opposition party must have its own chairmanship election.

Despite the protests, Representative Jung Jang-sun, secretary general of the Democratic Party, said Wednesday that the party would push ahead with its plan to hold a united leadership election on Dec. 17 by inviting Innovation and Integration and other progressive political parties.

It remains unclear, however, whether the plan can go ahead, as it must be approved by the Democratic Party’s central committee.

Another potential sticking point between Innovation and Integration and the Democratic Party is the question of Ahn Cheol-soo’s possible role in a liberal merger.

Innovation and Integration has not hidden its desire to bring the liberal darling into its merger plan. In a meeting with journalists on Monday, Moon Jae-in said Ahn had great potential in politics.

“If his high popularity is maintained, we should recognize him as our main player [in the next presidential election],” Moon said. “If Ahn wants to run, he needs forces, and that would be possible if he is with us.”

But Sohn, who is considered to be a presidential contender himself, was less enthusiastic about Ahn’s possible participation in the liberal merger.

“Ahn is an icon for change,” Sohn said. “But it is a separate issue if Ahn will have an opportunity to become a political engine, and if he has any intention to do so.”

By Ser Myo-ja []
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