Saenuri splitting, 35 reps plan to defect

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Saenuri splitting, 35 reps plan to defect

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Lawmakers outside the pro-Park Geun-hye faction of the Saenuri Party, including former floor leader Rep. Yoo Seong-min, fourth from left, and former Chairman Rep. Kim Moo-sung, fifth from left, put arms around each other as they announce their defection from the ruling conservative party on Wednesday. [KANG JUNG-HYUN]

Saenuri lawmakers outside the pro-Park Geun-hye faction said Wednesday they will defect from the party en masse next week to create a new conservative party, a move that could complicate next year’s presidential race.

At least 35 Saenuri lawmakers are planning to defect next Tuesday, according to Rep. Hwang Young-cheul, who has been serving as spokesman for the anti-Park faction within the party. Hwang said of 33 party lawmakers who attended a Wednesday meeting at the National Assembly, 31 agreed on the need to defection. Hwang said four additional party members who did not attend the meeting also expressed their intention to join.

“We will carry out our defections on Dec. 27,” said the three-term lawmaker following the meeting, “So far we have 35 lawmakers joining the cause for defection.”

He said the group expected more Saenuri members to join before next Tuesday, the defection deadline.

The Wednesday meeting was attended by former Saenuri floor leader Yoo Seong-min and former Saenuri chairman Kim Moo-sung, both considered de facto leaders of the anti-Park movement within the Saenuri.

The decision to defect came after the anti-Park faction failed to win control of the party last Friday when Rep. Na Kyung-won lost an in-party race to become the party’s floor leader to a pro-Park lawmaker, Chung Woo-taik. Na’s defeat was a disappointment to lawmakers who voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye on Dec. 9 in the aftermath of the party’s drop in approval ratings as a result of a grave abuse of power scandal. The Saenuri’s approval rating nosedived to 15 percent while its rival Minjoo Party enjoyed a 40-percent-approval rating in the latest poll.

The Wednesday announcement came after the pro-Park faction turned down a demand by Park adversaries that Rep. Yoo take charge of the party as interim leader. The anti-Park group gave an ultimatum they would defect unless their demand was met.

“We have concluded it has become impossible for us to seek real reforms within the Saenuri,” said former Saenuri floor leader Yoo. “Therefore, we decided to go outside the Saenuri to project a new conservatism that we can take pride in presenting to the future generation.”

The number of lawmakers intent on leaving the Saenuri could increase in the coming days, though it remains to be seen by how many. To form a political party with negotiation power at the Assembly, it must have 20 lawmakers.

Pro-Park Saenuri lawmakers condemned soon-to-be departing fellow party members, calling them “betrayers” and “irresponsible.”

“Betraying one’s own party’s members and leaving the party just because they have different opinions is not a responsible attitude,” said Saenuri floor leader Chung, adding that a responsible politician would “rebuild the party from the inside” instead of deserting it.

The defections deepen political uncertainties as the Constitutional Court deliberates Park’s impeachment and the timing of the next presidential election remains up in the air.

If 35 or more Saenuri lawmakers create what will be a center-right conservative party, it has the potential to win back conservatives totally disillusioned with Park and her party due to the grave abuse of power scandal implicating the president and her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil.

The defectors are expected to complete the formation of a new party by the end of January and prepare to field a candidate in the presidential race - whenever it is held. If the Constitutional Court approves the impeachment motion and Park is forced to resign, a presidential election must be held within 60 days. The court has until June 6 to rule on the legal validity of the impeachment.

If the court disallows the impeachment motion and restores Park’s powers, the election will be held on schedule in December.

A look at the representatives planning to defect shows some patterns.

Of 11 Saenuri lawmakers elected by Seoul constituents in last April’s general election, nine have said they will defect. Ten Saenuri lawmakers who represented districts in Busan and North Gyeongsang, including former party chief Kim Moo-sung, also expressed the intention to leave the party.

In the conservative Daegu and North Gyeongsang region, a stronghold of the Saenuri, only three lawmakers sided with the anti-Park faction so far.

Should 35 Saenuri lawmakers stay Wednesday, their new party will become the fourth largest in the National Assembly, only three seats short of the People’s Party. The ruling Saenuri will see its lawmakers reduced to 93 from the current 128.

For the major opposition Minjoo Party, the worst scenario would be an alliance forged between the new party and the People’s Party to challenge the Minjoo’s Moon Jae-in, the frontrunner in polls for the next presidential election.

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

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