Eve of destruction
The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy is set for a breakup. The fragile cohabitation of the mainstream led by politicians loyal to former president Roh Moo-hyun and the traditional democracy movement faction based in Jeolla Province upholding heritage of former president Kim Dae-jung has failed to overcome deeply-rooted mistrust and mutual fear.
The minority faction had been fearful of its mainstream counterpart’s online fan base that led to the boosting of the power of the Roh loyalists during candidate nominations for the 2012 parliamentary election, while the mainstream faction still bears resentment for the minority members ganging up to call for a replacement for Roh as presidential candidate to succeed Kim Dae-jung in the 2002 presidential election. Unless the Roh faction breaks out of its exclusive shell, it cannot draw support from the traditional opposition and liberal voters from Jeolla.
The Roh faction that mostly led the student democracy movement in late 1980s is faced with its biggest challenge. Many believe they have been overrated. Many of the members entered politics easily through sympathy votes after the then-opposition conservative party received a backlash from its attempt to impeach Roh. They were later pushed back to the back row, but returned to the spotlight after Roh’s tragic suicide. They made a strong political comeback after promising various free welfare programs during the 2012 presidential election campaign. But without home support from Jeolla, the Roh faction’s political life cannot last. The Democratic United Party primarily led by the Roh faction only secured 81 seats in 2008 legislative election.
Activists became a synonym for the liberals in the opposition. Student activists, leaders from liberal dissident groups and civic organizations formed a network to help one another. Their tight networking and alliance from the student activist days made them a closed and restrictive group. They have since tried expanding their exclusive network. Their critics say their recruiting of new candidates for elections was restricted to former dissidents and left-wing groups.
Their lack of freshness and creativity in policies didn’t help. Decades of careers as dissidents made them knee-jerk oppositionists. Their reasoning was either black or white. Tax cuts meant favoritism towards large conglomerates or chaebol. A counter-terrorism act was to them a form of oppression against human rights. Their habit of dichotomizing has put them in a very narrow box indeed. Anyone who talks of reason is criticized of having no ideals. Anyone who suggests dialogue or compromise is a betrayer. Times have changed, but they live in the days of the struggle against military regimes. Their own party members sneer about them being trapped in 1987.
The principles of Roh were anti-regionalism and anti-elitism. But his followers have generated another form of prerogatives. They cling to their seats and vested power and cannot even tolerate running in unpopular or risky constituencies. In fact, Roh’s legacy is upheld more by minority faction members like Kim Boo-kyum, who has been repeatedly trying to win a seat in Daegu, a traditionally conservative base, so far in vain. Ahn Cheol-soo, the political maverick who co-founded the main opposition party two years ago, bolted from the party out of disillusionment with the Roh faction. He cries for the end to the “old liberals,” arguing that the opposition paradigm from the 1980s student activist days cannot solve the problems and challenges of 2016. The more the Roh faction highlights its Roh legacy, the more it will lose Jeolla votes to the new liberal party led by Ahn.
The Roh faction now has become a target of reform. Party followers are pleading for activists-turned-politicians to step aside. But their voices are hardly likely to be heard. More than 10,000 lawmakers, aides, local government administrators and civilian organizations are rooted in the faction. We cannot expect all of them to exit gracefully.
The April election will serve as the judgment day. Many of Roh-followers could be forced off the political main stage. The second generation dissident Cho Seong-joo once said he was bewildered by the snobbish way the old activists talked of their heroic student movement days. Nothing can be changed if everything is blamed on the president, he said. The younger generation politicians wish to address pending issues like people forced to work on contracts rather than as staffers. They believe in democracy through dialogue and persuasion instead of violent argument and never-ending protest.
One civic organization staffer says student activists are no longer welcome as they often come late to work and are less committed. Past activists prized the notions of sacrifice and devotion. It is thanks to them our society has progressed so much. But they must not insist on reward and compensation. They should be satisfied that they have contributed in our social advance. If they ask for more, they are calling for a disaster. This was a piece of advice from long-time dissident and progressive camp lawmaker Noh Hoi-chan.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 29, Page 34
*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho