Overlapping identities

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Overlapping identities

Political parties are busy trying to create new and distinctive identities for themselves following last week’s election surprise, which gave birth to a three-party National Assembly dynamic for the first time in 16 years. Although there are three majors parties, their identities have gotten confusing after defections of players from all the main groups right before the election. It will be no surprise if former members of the same team end up in brawls.

The Minjoo Party of Korea, which elbowed out the Saenuri Party to become the largest party in the legislature by a single seat, is composed largely of a liberal mainstream led by members of the pro-Roh Moo-hyun faction, along with moderates recruited by interim leader Kim Chong-in. The Roh faction is liberal left, while Kim is a conservative who leans left.

Kim, a champion of pragmatic economics, supports economic democratization, or greater economic equality, but his theory is different from the pro-equality and fairer distribution dogma of the Roh faction. He does not outright disregard growth and efficiency in economic policy. He agrees that chaebol, or family-run conglomerates, should be contained through regulation, but nevertheless is not entirely antichaebol. He proposes to have cash-rich Samsung Group invest in Gwangju to revive the economy and jobs there.

Rep. Jung Chung-rae is an outspoken critic of Kim. He opposed the idea of placing Kim at the top of the party, claiming that someone who went to prison for taking bribes is not eligible to lead a party. Kim was found guilty of taking 200 million won ($176,000) in bribes in 1992 while serving as the economic senior secretary to President Roh Tae-woo. Kim lost further favor with the Roh faction after he chose not to attend the second memorial ceremony for the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster over the weekend. He told members they were “allowed” to take part in the ceremony on an individual basis. The Roh faction, which had led antigovernment protests over the way the Sewol ferry disaster was handled and investigated, fumed over Kim’s insensitivity. Political commentators said Kim is watering down the liberal identify of the Minjoo Party. They believe his contribution will end if he is ousted from the party.

The People’s Party, which hived off from the main liberal party, looks even shakier in terms of identity after its better-than-expected election performance. Centrist Ahn Cheol-soo and diehard leftist Chun Jung-bae are co-chairs of the party. The rivalry between the two surfaced as soon as the election was over. Their marriage of convenience could work in the long run, since the two have different aspirations from the arrangement — Ahn wants to run for president and Chun wants to run a party.

But their ways are too different to make it a long-term match. Chun can’t leave behind his contentious ways, demanding a parliamentary probe on the eight years of governance under two conservative governments. Ahn, who claims to be progressive on the economic front and conservative on security, wants to concentrate on tending to economic affairs rather than picking a political fight with the government. The party will probably struggle more than its bigger liberal rival in terms of unity and identity.

The Saenuri Party is dogged by a power struggle between a traditional right-wing faction staunchly loyal to the president and a moderate minority who sides with former floor leader Yoo Seong-min, who was forced out of the party for supposedly betraying the president even through the fallout of that fracas has cost the party its majority in the legislature. Yoo, who was elected in his home base as an independent, holds the key to the future. The diehard right wing was the cause of the poor performance at the polls. Yoo’s proposal for a socially responsible economic policy could bring some fresh air to the complacent party. The pro-Park group vehemently opposes accepting Yoo back into the party. But the Saenuri Party was never a right-wing party. Park won the presidential election with an economic platform promising a fairer economy, taking a page from the liberals.

Korea experimented with a multiparty system with muddled identities before. Long-time dissident Kim Young-sam merged with the conservative ruling party right before a presidential election and finally became president. President Roh Moo-hyun, supposedly anti-America, was the one who pushed for a free trade agreement with the United States. He insisted that there should be no left or right in economic affairs if national interests were at stake. He also supported the U.S. engagement in Iraq and sent Korean troops. His followers felt betrayed, but history now views Roh as a wise president.

The race among our confused parties toward the presidential election is on. The people made clear their wishes in the most recent vote. They do not approve of extreme right or left positions or parties. They want balance, reason and compromise from politicians to make this country better and stronger. The more a country and its economy matures, the more centric it becomes.

Pundits predict either a progressive rightist or conservative leftist will become the next president. Among the hopefuls, Ahn Cheol-soo and Yoo Seong-min fit the description. Kim of the Minjoo Party thinks Ahn would desert his party to join the ruling party to run for president.

There are other options for the conservative group, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. At the end of the day, someone who best comes up with the right blend and wins the hearts of the people across the board will be the winner.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 21, Page 30

*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Yi Jung-jae
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