Split in Saenuri Party is biggest in Korean history

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Split in Saenuri Party is biggest in Korean history


Saenuri Party lawmakers disgruntled with loyalists of President Park Geun-hye pose for a group photo in the National Assembly on Tuesday as they jointly announce their defection from the ruling party to create a new conservative party. [KIM HYUN-DONG]

Saenuri Party lawmakers disgruntled with loyalists of President Park Geun-hye defected en masse Tuesday to create a rival party, the first major split of the conservative party in its history.

A total of 29 Saenuri lawmakers defected, reducing the Saenuri’s number of lawmakers to 99 from 128 and making explicit their contempt for a leadership controlled by loyalists of President Park, who was impeached over an unprecedented abuse of power scandal.

The launch of the new conservative party, tentatively called the New Conservative Party for Reform (NCPR), is scheduled for Jan. 24, and it is guaranteed to upend the conservative’s strategy for the 2017 presidential race.

That election, originally scheduled for next December, could take place much sooner if the Constitutional Court approves the impeachment motion against Park and removes her from office.

The defecting lawmakers declared the party will serve as a “central point for real conservatives” and will strive to realize “social unity” while “safeguarding principles of freedom and democracy.”

The 29 lawmakers used strong words to condemn those remaining in the ruling party, calling them the “pro-Park power group” who “forgot the values of conservatism.”

It also called the scandal over power wielded by presidential friend Choi Soon-sil “the worst case of a constitutional violation.”

The lawmakers said the Park loyalists in the party acted shamelessly by defending people at the center of the scandal.

The word conservatism was mentioned 24 times in their declaration, far surpassing any other ideological or political terms.

The defectors registered their group with the National Assembly Tuesday as a 30-member body after accepting Rep. Kim Yong-tae, who had left the Saenuri Party earlier.

The anti-Park group selected four-term lawmaker Joo Ho-young as its floor leader and three-term lawmaker Lee Jong-koo as chief policymaker Tuesday through group consensus.

Parties with 20 or more lawmakers are considered negotiation blocs, which can send representatives to negotiate legislative calendars and receive higher state subsidies than parties with fewer lawmakers.

The Tuesday defection marked the biggest split in the conservative party in Korean political history. The Saenuri has its root in a three-way merger in 1990 of the then-governing Democratic Justice Party and two opposition parties led by Kim Young-sam, who was elected president in 1997, and two-time Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil during the Roh Tae-woo government. While there have been divisions and splits among the conservatives in the past, no more than 20 lawmakers ever left the party.

The 29 defections fell short of the number hoped for by the group last week, when it said 35 Saenuri members shared the cause. The shortfall is attributed to disagreements among anti-Park members over policy directions, especially on the economic front, advocated by Rep. Yoo Seong-min, a de-facto co-leader of the party-in-the-making along with former Saenuri chairman Kim Moo-sung.

Yoo, a former economist with a Ph.D. in economics from University of Wisconsin-Madison, has given interviews expressing support for progressive economic policies. Among the economic policies advocated by the Saenuri’s former floor leader is changing the corporate tax rate from the current 22 percent to 25 percent for companies with more than 50 billion won ($41.4 million) in annual revenue. The 25 percent tax rate was slashed by the Lee Myung-bak administration in 2008.

Yoo also maintains widening welfare benefits is impossible without raising taxes, a position that could put him at odds with some of his own group members.

One Saenuri lawmaker who was expected to join the defection but opted not to was Rep. Na Kyung-won. In a Facebook post Tuesday, she said while it was clear she could no longer stay in the Saenuri, she would decide whether to join the new party after “careful observation” of its reforms.

With Jan. 24 being set as the launch date, there could be a second phase of defection from the Saenuri. One key factor is a decision by outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is neck-and-neck with former Minjoo chairman Moon Jae-in as a presidential front-runner.

If the 72-year-old UN chief gives a signal that he will join the new party instead of the Saenuri, the number of defectors could rise substantially, especially those representing the Chungcheong regions, political observers say. Ban is from North Chungcheong.

Saenuri floor leader Chung Woo-taik called the Tuesday mass defections a “failure,” citing the target number of 35 that Park adversaries had initially declared last week.

“I think their first phase of defection ended in failure as they fell short of reaching 35 defectors,” said Chung.

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