The Democratic Party at sea

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The Democratic Party at sea

The Chun Doo Hwan administration was nearing the end of its term in 1986. On July 10 of that year, I accompanied Kim Young-sam, adviser to the main opposition New Democratic Party, in his car. It took about an hour and half to drive to our destination. During the drive, Kim unleashed his frustration at then-party chairman, Lee Min-woo. Lee was a kind of figurehead for him and Kim Dae-jung, who could not actively participate in politics under the reign of President Chun. Kim complained how hard it was doing business with Lee.

The conflict arose because Lee began to raise his own voice. He finally staged his own solo act. On Dec. 24 of that year, Lee announced that the opposition could agree to a constitutional reform allowing a Japan-style parliamentary cabinet system if the government and ruling party guaranteed seven democratic actions including local autonomy and freedom in the media.

The two Kims rejected the compromise with the military regime. The two dissident icons met with their separate factions on March 12, 1987 and received their members’ signatures on a petition. On May 1, they took their respective lineages and divorced from the party to form two separate splinter opposition parties led by Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. They joined up to kill Chun’s political deal and instead fought for direct presidential election.

The Democratic Party, whose liberal roots date back to the two Kims, now stands as frail and vulnerable as candlelight. Kim Han-gill, former aide to President Kim Dae-jung, was elected to head the largest opposition party and pledged to start anew. In his inauguration speech, Kim said the party can survive only if it changes everything except for its democratic roots and soul. He promised to do away with factionalism, populism, dogmatism and irresponsibility. But it is uncertain whether the party will transform itself in the way Kim envisions. There are no remnants of the gripping and charismatic leadership of the days under Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, who went against enormous odds to gain governing power.

The moral superiority of progressiveness and liberalism that propelled Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun to the presidency has also expired long ago. The opposition party won favor with the populace because of its crusade for moral justice during the authoritarian days. But the dictatorial days are long gone too. With the common enemy gone, the left wing exposed its various schisms and contradictions. It showed itself to be full of mind-boggling and complicated political equations and conundrums that cannot be easily separated into good and bad, just and unjust. The democratic forces have ironically lost their identity and sense of direction after democracy was finally achieved.

The surprising defeat of the Democratic Party in both legislative and presidential elections last year underscored that Korean politics are no longer swayed by moral causes alone. The party joined forces with a progressive party to accentuate reform and progressiveness, but voters weighed its sincerity and functional capabilities over its rhetoric before they made their actual choices. The DP narrowly lost, maintaining its status as the main opposition party but nevertheless falling far short of gaining power.

The political climate has also turned unfavorable for the DP. During the last election, President Park Geun-hye sold economic justice and increased social welfare - typical themes of the liberal camp - better than her DP rival. The DP’s abstract and progressive platform built on traditional moral superiority of liberalism was shunned by the public. Park did not walk away from her campaign promise. She kept them as key policy priorities of her government. It is hard to differentiate the conservative Saenuri Party with the liberal DP in terms of policies. Some are thinking Park and the ruling party are better in terms of sincerity and credibility. If the conservative government enacts progressive and reform-oriented policies, the DP will lose ground further.

Ahn Cheol-soo, who could have been a formidable independent presidential candidate until the DP squeezed him out of the race, has now entered the legislature by winning a by-election in April. During his return from abroad in March after a short hiatus following his withdrawal from the presidential election, Ahn read “Human Scars in Labor-less Democracy,” a book by Choi Jang-jip, a renowned progressive political critic and professor emeritus at Korea University.

Choi points out in his book that Korean democracy has turned sour partly because politics and social movement have been dominated by student activists-turned-political elites. He asks what the left-wing politicians actually have done to help the socially weak and underprivileged. He has long been arguing that during the decade of liberal governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, polarization deepened and common lives got harder.

Ahn has been studying the weaknesses of the DP, largely led by student activists from the 1980s. To the aspiring political newcomer, the DP may be one of his targets for reform and a political target rather than a partner. This is what the political survival instincts may tell the independent Ahn.

The DP is in a critical stage. The ruling and conservative Saenuri Party has stolen the spotlight of its traditional policy themes and Ahn’s so-called “new politics” can overshadow its future. The strong leadership of the era of the two Kims is not what we have today. The DP has to free itself from its ideological chains to find its way back into the hearts of the people. That is how it can establish new leadership and restore balance. It is not too late. The DP played a critical role in Korean society over many years. It overcame extreme odds and ruled two consecutive terms. The revival of the DP will restore healthy legislative rivalry. The real contest should start from here on.

* The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Ha-kyung
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