Why the GNP fears an FTA fistfight

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Why the GNP fears an FTA fistfight

In December 2008, the ruling Grand National Party was determined to ratify the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, starting with introducing the bill in a parliamentary committee. The party had a majority on the committee, and it locked its members in a room and prepared to vote.

The opposition, which was against the agreement, attacked the room with chain saws, sledgehammers and makeshift water cannons.

So violent was the confrontation, the GNP walked away from ratifying the pact.

This week, after renegotiating the agreement with the United States late last autumn and making major compromises with the anti-FTA opposition in October, it is expected to try once more to use its majority in committees and on the Assembly floor to finally clear the long-delayed pact.

With 169 lawmakers in the 295-member National Assembly, a floor vote should be a walk in the park for the Grand National Party.

But the specter of violent resistance by the minority opposition, like in 2008 and in countless other scuffles over bills in the past, is casting a new level of terror among the GNP’s lawmakers.

They think the violence may cost them their jobs.

A general election is scheduled for next April, which will be followed by presidential elections in December 2012. Political analysts across the spectrum think the general elections in April may be like none other in Korea’s past because of the rise this year of a whole new breed of independent Korean politicians free of the ideology-based political parties of the past.

“The next general election will no longer be a contest between the ruling and opposition parties,” predicts Shin Yul, political studies professor at Myongji University. “It will be a match between the old politics and the new politics.”

And nothing says old politics more than the parliamentary fistfights and out-and-out brawls that have long characterized Korean democracy.

“If the lawmakers stage another scuffle in the National Assembly, it will guarantee a victory for the new political force of the independent candidates,” Shin said. “The voters are so tired of business-as-usual, conventional politicians. All they need to walk away from them is one more fistfight in the legislature.”

The rising power of independent politicians was proven by the landslide victory of Mayor Park Won-soon, a civic activist and human rights lawyer, in the Oct. 26 Seoul mayoral by-election against GNP candidate Na Kyung-won. Park is a liberal, which puts him on the side of the main opposition Democratic Party and smaller opposition parties, but he’s not a member of any party. First he won the liberal primary for the Seoul mayoral race, and then he won the post itself, one of the most powerful positions in the country, with the overwhelming support of Seoul’s younger generations.

Behind him was Ahn Cheol-soo, a software tycoon who also belongs to no political party, who is now topping opinion polls as the frontrunner in the 2012 presidential election ahead of powerful, veteran party politicians.

The meteoric rise of both Ahn and Park is considered a seismic shift in Korean politics.

Even before Park became Seoul mayor, some lawmakers - particularly younger ones - realized the winds were blowing in a new direction, particularly in terms of the public’s acceptance of traditional political wheeling and dealing, lack of constructive compromise - and the punch-ups in the legislature.

After a brawl during the passage of the 2011 national budget last December, 22 Grand National lawmakers issued a joint statement declaring they would not join with any legislative procedure that involved physical forces. They also took public vows not to run for re-election next April if they ended up being involved in physical violence in the legislature.

In addition to those 22 representatives, many first-term lawmakers seeking re-election next year fear being caught on camera in brawls, and have demanded the GNP leadership not railroad the FTA through the Assembly. Of the 169 GNP lawmakers, 93 are first-term representatives, and many of them have publicly said they will not cooperate with any attempt to push through a bill that will invite violent resistance from the opposition.

That leaves open the possibility of the GNP not actually having a majority when the FTA comes up for a vote, which will probably happen on Thursday. The ratification requires a majority of the incumbent 295 lawmakers - at least 148 - to participate in the vote, and a majority of them must support it. So far, about 50 GNP lawmakers have said they will stay away from a vote that is guaranteed to be countered with violence from the opposition.

On the other side of the fence, the opposition Democratic Party’s fierce resistance to the FTA is also directly linked to next year’s elections. With its diminishing stature as the largest opposition party, Representative Sohn Hak-kyu, DP chairman, is in desperate need of an alliance with smaller parties to unite the liberal votes. The anti-GNP and anti-FTA campaigns also strengthen his power inside the DP by uniting the lawmakers, Shin said.

Since late October, the floor leaders of the ruling GNP and the DP have held a series of negotiations to find common ground on the FTA. President Lee Myung-bak made a rare visit to the National Assembly last Tuesday to appeal for bipartisan cooperation, proposing a concession on the pact’s controversial investor-state dispute settlement (ISD) provision. The DP, however, rejected his compromise and presented an impossible counterproposal.

“The Democratic Labor Party is a strong opponent of the FTA,” Shin said. “That left no choice for the DP but to oppose it. The Democrats’ opposition was not and never will be about the FTA itself. There was just no way for the DP to support the FTA in the current political structure.”

As the deadlock in the National Assembly continued over the FTA, critics lambasted the lawmakers’ inability to reach a compromise through talks. “If the GNP railroads the FTA, it will just show its political incompetence,” said Incheon Mayor Song Young-gil on Thursday. “If the opposition party fails to negotiate, it will just show its irresponsibility.”

Song, a former three-term lawmaker, is a key supporter of the FTA, although he was a member of the DP’s predecessor, the Uri Party, during the Roh Moo-hyun administration.

“If incompetence and irresponsibility meet and spark violent melees in the National Assembly, the world will see the shameful level of Korea’s National Assembly,” Song said.

While the deadlock between the ruling and opposition parties over the FTA appears to be leading to violence in the Assembly, political analysts said a more permanent solution is needed to end the embarrassing Korean tradition of political punch-ups.

“It needs more than just a few lawmakers’ efforts to stay away from violence,” said Kim Meen-geon, professor of political science at Kyung Hee University. “As long as the lawmakers are ordered to follow the official party platform in a floor vote, the melees will continue.”

Under the National Assembly Act’s Article 114, clause 2, lawmakers are given the right of cross voting. “Any National Assembly member shall vote according to his or her own conscience as a representative of the nation, without being bound by the intention of a political party whereto he or she belongs,” the clause states.

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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