A marriage of convenienceAhn Cheol-soo, who ran for president under the People’s Party, and Yoo Seong-min of the Bareun Party have long lost their halo of potential as standard-bearers of a “third way” in Korean politics.
Ahn, after returning from self-imposed exile following his defeat in the May election, said he was determined to achieve the party’s — and his own — resurrection even if he died crossing the endless “desert.” Yoo, who was recently elected to lead the Bareun Party, told his peers that “a warm spring would be waiting once we cross the valley of death.”
The two leaders are responsible for marshaling their hopeless parties against all odds, which is why many pundits believe the two will inevitably join forces. The defeated have to help each other out of the pit.
The scenario of a merger between the People’s Party and Bareun Party was floated once before. The two leaders, however, were negative about the prospects.
But that was when both had aspirations of becoming president. Ahn must fight to build his turf within his party, where liberals from the Honam region are more interested in an alliance with the ruling Democratic Party, of which they used to members. It would be foolish to get involved in a standoff between the ruling party and main opposition Liberty Korea Party over the administration’s campaign against “past ills,” which the conservative Liberty Korea Party sees as a political vendetta. Even if President Moon Jae-in’s popularity wanes, a splinter party would benefit little from the skirmish between the two bigger parties. It must scale up to have its own voice heard.
Yoo, who has been championing unity between centrist and conservative forces, will also have to deliver some results within the year. Since a merger among conservative parties is out of the question, he must somehow find a way to build an alliance with centrist forces to prevent the party from a full breakdown. Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hong Joon-pyo, upon accepting members who deserted the Bareun Party, declared he was “closing the door” to suggest that he would have no more association with the Bareun Party, which was launched by members who bolted from the Liberty Korea Party.
On the Bareun Party’s part, the People’s Party has emerged as its sole partner to stay afloat. From the mood and conditions, Ahn and Yoo will likely come up with a road map for either a merger or alliance for next year’s elections.
However, they lack energy in their pursuit of a breakthrough. Members of their parties are strongly opposed to a merger or alliance. The People’s Party’s Honam lawmakers are pressuring Ahn to team up with the Democratic Party.
Yoo is getting nags from his own members about going back to the Liberty Korea Party. The Bareun Party has lost its negotiation bloc status on the floor after some of its members jumped ship to the LKP. The party is near collapse from a lengthy conflict between those wishing to go back and stay. The voices among conservatives to form a joint front gained ground after the prosecution’s investigation of former President Park Geun-hye extended to her conservative predecessor Lee Myung-bak.
The People’s Party has already split into two. Ahn at least wishes for an alliance with the Bareun Party in next year’s elections and envisions a bigger partnership. But Honam lawmakers entirely seek an alliance with a bigger party for a sure win. They are against a merger with a party with few seats and lacking negotiating status. They also oppose joining a party where the remaining members are mostly aligned with former President Lee. Their political backgrounds and policy stances differ. Even if they do integrate, it would be odd to have two families living under the same roof.
Then there is the question of slim chances of winning the election through an alliance. It is plausible for the second or third candidate to team up to beat the front-runner, or the first and third collaborating in order to cement leadership for the first. But it would not make much of a difference in the election dynamics when the third and fourth join forces.
Next year’s elections are being held nearly a year after the snap election in May. Park’s trial won’t be finished by then, and Moon’s strong approval ratings won’t suddenly plummet. There are just two governors from the Bareun Party, but it remains uncertain whether they can get re-elected.
The two leaders still have hopes of teaming up because of the potential synergy effect. Recent People’s Party polls show that its approval rating will go up to 19 percent if it merges with the Bareun Party. A recent debate among members only underscores how divided the party is about its direction. It would be reckless to push ahead with a merger when half of its members oppose.
But Ahn will not have a political future if he settles with pleasing Honam lawmakers, and Yoo is in a hurry to come up with a viable solution before the party becomes an empty ship. A third party has hardly survived in Korean politics. None lasted long because they did not work hard to stay afloat. The cause of forming a third way remains intact. It is the only way for the country to finally grow out of its regionalism.
Politics is the art of mixing cause and practicality. Strong leadership can make it work. For the two leaders, there is no other way and not much time left. Shepherds must not waver if they wish to take their herds safely to their destination.
JoongAng Ibo, Nov. 22, Page 32
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.