Scandal disrupts political balance

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Scandal disrupts political balance

Amid a payoff scandal set into motion by a late construction tycoon implicating key politicians close to President Park Geun-hye, the balance of power within the ruling party appears to have shifted in favor of lawmakers from outside of the pro-Park faction, namely its two top leaders Kim Moo-sung and Yoo Seong-min.

The reshaping of the power structure within the Saenuri Party comes as the Park government is facing what many argue is its biggest political crisis to date, which has the potential to force it into an early lame-duck session in just its third year in office.

A sign of Kim’s elevated stature was evidenced on April 16, when the president hastily summoned the ruling party chairman for an unscheduled one-on-one meeting, just about an hour before her departure for a 12-day trip to Latin America.

The meeting with Park was in line with what Kim has long demanded from the Blue House since he ran for the party’s top position last year promising to facilitate better communication with the presidential office.

Yoo Seong-min, the Saenuri floor leader, also comes from outside the pro-Park alliance, and his views on measures to revive the economy have openly differed from Park’s.

The scandal was sparked after construction tycoon Sung Wan-jong was found hanged on April 9 amid corruption allegations, leaving behind a list naming eight key politicians and presidential aides, including Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo, implicating them in under-the-table monetary deals.

It is likely that all three former and incumbent presidential chiefs of staff, as well as other longtime aides to the president, will be questioned on allegations that they took illegal funds from the former Keangnam Enterprises chairman.

Such a situation would essentially leave the Park administration reliant on a ruling party led by two lawmakers outside its key alliance as the Blue House works to coordinate policy initiatives with the Saenuri, experts say.

“Saenuri lawmakers from the pro-Park group will refrain [from challenging the party’s senior leaders],” said Lee Chung-hee, a political science professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “But we need to wait and see whether this [payoff scandal] will shift the balance of power entirely toward non-pro Park members.”

“And the Blue House will need to rely more on the Saenuri [to carry out its initiatives], so the presidential office must have sensed the need.”

So far, the only heavyweight loyal to Park who still stands unscathed from the case is Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan, who presided over a cabinet meeting Tuesday in place of Prime Minister Lee, whose political fate now hangs in the balance.

Amid swirling bribery allegations, the Park administration appears to have lost some of the momentum needed to push through major policy directives it aimed to achieve this year. Hopes to carry out major reforms, including reforms on the debt-ridden pension system for government employees, were particularly high in 2015 with no major election.

Further compounding concerns for the pro-Park faction is that seven of the eight politicians listed on the 56-word memo found in Sung’s trouser pocket all played a pivotal role in Park’s 2012 presidential race.

Experts argue the case has dealt a huge blow to the Park government’s capacity to push for reform-minded policies.

“People already seem to have lost interest in the major policy drives promised by the government,” said Professor Lee.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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