Parties in suspense over by-elections

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Parties in suspense over by-elections


Saenuri Chairman Kim Moo-sung, left, and NPAD co-chairmen, Kim Han-gill and Ahn Cheol-soo, right. [NEWSIS]

For both the ruling and main opposition parties, the outcomes of tomorrow’s by-elections will largely dictate the power landscape within each party.

For newly elected Chairman Kim Moo-sung of the Saenuri Party, a positive outcome would further boost his authority within the country’s largest party and reinforce his mandate to equalize the nature of the relationship between the party and the Blue House.

For the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, the outcomes will be seen as a referendum on a way its two chairmen, Kim Han-gill and Ahn Cheol-soo, have led the party since they took power in March. Kim and Ahn handpicked the nominees in the most important races, such as Dongjak B District in Seoul, which has generated criticism both within the party and from outside. They also have been accused of not having a strategy to attack the Saenuri and the Park Geun-hye government in the aftermath of the Sewol crisis. Of 15 races nationwide, the most carefully watched are six in Seoul and surrounding areas in Gyeonggi. The leadership members of both parties have concentrated on those six races in the last days of an official two-week campaign. Of the six, four are neck and neck.

For the ruling party, it is generally thought that winning seven to eight of the 15 races will be considered a victory that would further cement Kim’s authority in the political arena. Such a victory would give the Saenuri Party an upper hand in negotiating with the NPAD in passing the special law on the Sewol sinking and prove that the NPAD’s efforts to capitalize on the government’s bungled rescue efforts in the ferry sinking have largely failed.

The fact that there is no election scheduled for a year after tomorrow’s by-elections will provide the 63-year-old Chairman Kim considerable room to maneuver and empower the Saenuri to make demands or objections to the Park government when necessary.

Although the opposition has been trying to frame the by-elections as a verdict of the people on the Park government’s bungled response to the Sewol sinking, the outcomes of the 15 contested races will largely be determined by individual dynamics in each race.

The NPAD leadership has been criticized for deciding on some nominations by itself, and it has been accused of being out of touch with voters’ sentiments.

The outcome of the by-elections could determine whether Ahn, a former software mogul, remains as NPAD co-chairman, or even if he remains in politics. It’s generally agreed that the authority of the former presidential hopeful has been damaged by the top-down party nominations. A case in point is the opposition candidacy for Dongjak B District, Seoul, the only race contested in the capitol.

The NPAD leadership’s nomination of Ki Dong-min, a former aide to Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, to run in Dongjak led to a strong protest from an party member from the district who had prepared for years to run in a parliamentary election on an NPAD ticket. Ki, who had no connections with Dongjak District, was actually preparing to run in Gwangju. Appointing him tarnished Ahn’s image as a reform-minded lawmaker capable of bringing about change to top-heavy Korean politics.

Ki eventually dropped out of the race to support Justice Party candidate Roh Hoi-chan and not split the vote.

Ahn remarked earlier this month that winning five out of the 15 contested races would be a “job nicely done” by the NPAD leadership. Ahn’s comment was quickly rebuffed by lawmakers within the NPAD who are not happy with the current Ahn-Kim dual stewardship.

“The party must win in eight races at least to proclaim a victory,” said Park Ji-won, President Kim Dae-jung’s chief of staff, who has never been shy of criticizing Ahn.

The NPAD leadership has set winning in six races as the minimum number of seats to retain the trust of lawmakers. But if it only manages to defeat the Saenuri in four races in the Jeolla regions, its traditional stronghold, and fails to represent a single district outside of the support base, the NPAD may be compelled to elect new leadership.

That would mean Kim and Ahn are out less than six months after they took their positions, a scenario that will seriously undercut Ahn’s prospects of making a second bid for the presidency in 2017.


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