Clearing internal hurdle, DP to seek liberal merger

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Clearing internal hurdle, DP to seek liberal merger

Mending an internal rift that threatened to scuttle Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu’s ambitious plan to orchestrate a grand liberal merger by the year’s end, senior leaders of the Democratic Party agreed to form a new liberal party to challenge the governing Grand National Party in next year’s elections.

The merger, if successful, would signal a dramatic realignment in the nation’s political landscape, pitting a newly emboldened liberal opposition against the increasingly unpopular GNP. The plan, however, is contingent upon agreement from minor progressive parties, such as the Democratic Labor Party and the People’s Participation Party.

In a concession to Sohn, Representative Park Jie-won, former DP floor leader, agreed on Sunday night to first pursue a merger with other liberal parties and groups before holding a leadership election for the new party, Representative Jung Jang-sun, DP secretary general, said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.

The merger is expected to be complete by Dec. 11 with the leadership election scheduled for as early as the end of this year, said senior DP members who requested anonymity because the plan was not yet official.

The agreement within the DP cleared the path for Sohn’s efforts to merge with Innovation and Integration, a group formed by allies of the late former President Roh Moo-hyun and other independent liberal figures such as Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.

Sohn had earlier proposed a combined convention next month to elect the leadership for a new merged party but had been met with resistance from Park and other senior DP members who wanted the DP to hold its own leadership election before a merger.

With the DP now in agreement, the race to become chair of the proposed new party already appeared to have begun. Park, former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook and actor-turned-activist Moon Sung-keun have reportedly started campaign preparations.

The announcement also comes a week after minor liberal parties - the DLP, PPP and the New Progressive Party - said they would merge ahead of next year’s elections, though it is not yet known whether the minor parties will agree to consolidate with the DP. The potential shake-up in the political landscape also comes as the GNP seeks to revamp itself to win over voters who have grown increasingly disillusioned with the government.

Separately, some prominent conservatives and liberals have also mulled forming new parties, including conservative scholar Park Se-il and liberal software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo.

In a joint survey conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo, YTN and the East Asia Institute on Saturday, 51.3 percent of respondents said they wanted a new political party, a jump from 44.2 percent in September. The poll also showed that 10.5 percent of respondents supported last week’s announcement of a merger of minor progressive parties.

Political analysts and DP members said they expected a new liberal party, should it be formed, to enjoy high popularity among the public. In 2003, the Uri Party had over a 30 percent approval rating, and Representative Lee Yong-sup, DP spokesman, claimed yesterday that the new liberal party received 42.6 percent support in a recent internal poll.

The JoongAng poll also confirmed the public’s disapproval of the nation’s current politics. In a head-to-head matchup, Ahn’s lead over Representative Park Geun-hye, former GNP chairwoman, grew after the ruling party used its majority to ratify the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement last week. The poll showed that 50.1 percent of respondents said they supported Ahn for the presidency, 11.7 points ahead of Park’s 38.4 percent.

While Ahn led in a two-way race with Park, the daughter of former President Park Chung Hee maintained her front-runner status when multiple candidates were considered. Among 10 potential presidential candidates, Park was supported by 29.8 percent, while Ahn followed with 27.3 percent, within the margin of error.

Proponents of the proposed new liberal party reportedly have a plan to persuade Ahn to join, with Mayor Park Won-soon saying that Ahn would have no choice but to join the merged party eventually.

Ahn’s rising star was also conspicuous within the GNP, which has been trying to make itself over to keep competitive in next year’s elections. In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, Representative Won Hee-ryong, a member of the GNP’s Supreme Council, said Ahn was more than qualified to be president. “Someone like Ahn, who is healthy, reasonable and respected, should be used valuably to change Korea’s politics,” said Won. “If he wants to be president, there is no reason not to be.”

Won said that it would be best for the GNP to dismantle itself and re-form under a new identity of a healthy conservative party. “The best person capable of such a process is Ahn,” Won said.


By Ser Myo-ja, Shin Yong-ho [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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