Political rivalries flare as campaign period beginsIn the first few days after the Sewol ferry disaster, when the country was still in deep shock and mourning over the massive number of lives lost, the ruling and opposition parties reached out across the aisle, showing they were ready to act in a bipartisan manner to heal national wounds.
“As a leader of the ruling party, I share the great responsibility for the sinking. I bow my head deeply in apology,” Hwang Woo-yea, the Saenuri leader at the time, said on April 21, five days after the accident.
Kim Han-gill, a co-leader of the major opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), also took the same apologetic stance in a rare display of unity.
“As a member of the National Assembly and as the father of a child, I can’t help but feel guilty for having failed to make our society a safe place,” he said.
But that political harmony didn’t last long in the face of the upcoming local elections, and bipartisanship has hardly been witnessed since among lawmakers, who have instead opted to exchange verbal barbs in an attempt to raise their chances of victory.
With today marking the first day of the official 13-day election campaign, the two main parties are only expected to up their offensive.
Moon Jae-in, a lawmaker with the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), caused a stir yesterday at the National Assembly after he criticized President Park Geun-hye’s nationally televised address on Monday.
The former presidential candidate claimed that Park’s measures to prevent another national disaster fell far short of what was truly needed for government reform.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Moon also demanded that she overhaul her leadership style, which her opponents have called high-handed and uncommunicative.
Saenuri floor leader Lee Wan-koo responded by lashing out at Moon, who still carries considerable influence within the opposition. “It is very disappointing to hear a remark so irresponsible from a person who ran in the  presidential election,” he said during a party meeting yesterday at the National Assembly.
Another senior Saenuri member, Choi Kyung-hwan, who now co-heads the party’s campaign team, warned the NPAD that the public would not accept the opposition for “politicizing the national disaster for the local election.”
Bickering between the two sides continued inside the main conference hall of the National Assembly yesterday, the last day of a two-day special inquiry intended to shed light on what contributed to the ferry accident and the government’s subsequent poor handling of the crisis in the initial stages.
Outgoing Prime Minister Chung Hong-won and Blue House cabinet members were called in to answer direct questions from lawmakers, many of whom seemed determined to undermine or defend the Park administration.
Saenuri Representative Kim Hyun-sook noted during her inquiry with Prime Minister Chung that metal labor unionists over the weekend had joined recent candlelight vigil rallies meant for the Sewol victims, adding that those same unionists had demanded the president’s resignation.
Her remark was interpreted as her effort to paint those demonstrations as politically motivated, designed to undercut the Park government.
The June 4 local elections are anticipated to be a midterm test for the Park administration, and it is expected that the opposition will launch more of an offensive as it attempts to appeal to voters angry over the government’s handling of the sinking.
Rising public criticism over the government’s poor handling of the crisis has intensified the Saenuri’s concerns over the possibility of key losses in strategically vital races, including the Seoul mayoral race.
Observers have also expressed worries over what appears to be growing confrontation in the political sphere, particularly at a time when government unity is needed.
“Local elections are a small issue,” said Lee Won-jong, the former presidential political affairs secretary under the Roh Tae-woo government in the early 1990s. “Lawmakers must strive to restore the trust and confidence in the government the people have lost.”
“Power that lacks a sense of responsibility and only purses more power is merely violence [against the people], aggravating the public’s distrust in the political establishment.”
BY KWON HO, KANG JIN-KYU [firstname.lastname@example.org]