24.09.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

South Korea’s Conservative Party – a True People’s Power?

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On September 2, 2020, the main opposition force of the Republic of Korea, the conservative United Future Party changed its name. Of the three options proposed to the leadership of the party, the name People’s Power Party (PPP) was chosen.  The new name implies “the power coming from the people, exercised for the people and uniting the people into one whole.”

The name change is the latest in a series of measures to improve the image of the opposition party that was defeated in the April 15 parliamentary elections. It is also an occasion for us to see what has changed about the Conservatives aside from the name and how much they learned from the defeat.

Political parties in Korea change their name either in the electoral process of mergers and disengagement, or when they need to demonstrate a fresh start. In this context, the Conservatives have had to change their name three times in the past three years: after President Park Geun-hye was impeached, Saenuri’s Party became Liberty Korea; then, before the elections on April 15, it united with other right-wing groups and became the United Future Party.

Changing the name of a party signifies a determination to distance yourself from your past. The Conservatives suffered a series of crushing defeats in the 2016 parliamentary elections, the 2017 presidential elections, the 2018 local elections and the 2020 parliamentary elections, where their rivals won an overwhelming majority for the first time.

The April 15 debacle went down for a number of reasons. First, the tone in the party was set by the ultra-right circles, which were increasingly avoided by the public. Their representatives constantly made vulgar statements that lowered the party’s rating, and the program did not meet the today’s zeitgeist in numerous ways.

Second, the Conservatives entered the elections without prominent leaders (and those who stood out were rather questionable) and without a positive political agenda, only demanding a popular trial of President Moon; in addition, the logic of factional struggles forced them to criticize any initiatives put forward by the authorities.

Third, the Conservative Party was perceived as a party very detached from the people, protecting the interests of the privileged establishment and the rich; it also relies only on its traditional base, the so-called Yeongnam region, which includes the North and South Gyeongsang provinces and central cities located there (Daegu, Ulsan, Busan)

After the failure of the elections and the resignation of almost the entire party elite, the leadership of the party was in the hands of 80-year-old Kim Chong-in.  Professional political strategist, Kim is known as the “kingmaker” as he helped the Conservative Saenuri party win the majority in the 2012 general election, and then helped the Democrats win the majority in the 2016 general election. Both victories led to the “accession” of Park Geun Hye and Moon Jae In.

Before the elections he was little listened to, and mainly had to apologize for the mistakes made by his associates.   But on April 28, Kim Chong-in became chairman of the Party’s Interim Steering Committee, replacing the notorious Hwang Kyo Ahn, and on May 22, he finally became the head of the UFP, promising to “put all his efforts into the revival of the party and the country.”

What did Kim start doing? First, he began to change the party agenda, which became more centrist and touches upon the issues that truly concern the South Korean society. Promising to reform, he said the party should abandon politics and “conservative” values. The new party program includes many concepts that were previously associated only with Democrats. These include the idea of unconditional basic income, guaranteeing the labor rights of those who work on online platforms, strengthening the unemployment insurance system, and even trying to limit the time of MPs in parliament to three consecutive terms in an attempt to ensure generational change.

Second, they began to criticize the ruling party not generally and for conservative biased things (the sale of the country to China), but for specific facts and for a specific scandal. Overall, the UFP began to actually deviate from the principle: “whatever the democrats propose, we always vote against.”

Third, conservatives began to admit certain mistakes of the past and spread propaganda to foreign territory. When weeks of heavy rains hit the country hard, Kim proposed a fourth supplementary budget and visited flood ridden South Jeolla province, a traditional stronghold of the ruling party.

Moreover, on May 18, 2020, the anniversary of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, Kim attended a memorial to the victims and paid tribute to the graves of those who died during the movement. He wrote the following in the quest book: “I will do my best for the cause of democracy in step with the spirit of the democratization movement of May 18.”

Moreover, Kim distanced himself from the far-right wing of his party, whose representatives often interpreted the uprising as a rebellion inspired by DPRK agents.

For the Left, this reminded the former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who knelt in front of the monument to the Warsaw ghetto uprising during his visit to Poland on December 7, 1970.

Few believed that a political veteran would be able to revive the Conservative Party. However, it took Kim Chong-in under three months to prove them wrong. On August 6, the UFP narrowed the gap with the ruling party to less than 1% (34.8% versus 35.6%), including Seoul, where the liberal ruling party is traditionally strong. At the same time, President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating dropped 1.9 points to 44.5%, while his disapproval rating rose to 51.6%, the results appear to be partly due to public dissatisfaction with the government’s real estate policy.

A week later, the UFP overtook the Democrats with 36.5 percent to their 33.4 percent. For the first time since the outbreak of the candle revolution in October 2016, even worse, a poll showed that the Democratic Party of Korea  is losing support among residents of the southwestern Honam region (North and South Jeolla province, Gwangju city), which has traditionally been considered their base. There the Democrats approval rate fell by 11.5%.

Of course, problems remain: the factional struggle within the party continues, and the representatives of the old school as a whole have not gone anywhere.  Many party higher-ups have expressed concern that the party is losing its conservative identity. Some critics believe that the party’s success is not due to the party’s success, as much as the widespread disappointment in the government.

Even then, the conservatives will still not be able to change the ratio of mandates in parliament, and for now the government can freely push through most of the laws, and the opposition can only respond to this with a boycott, which still fails to show any results. The opportunity to make a name with mass rallies in response to this or that scandal involving the authorities or the ruling party has been eliminated by quarantine measures, against the backdrop of a pandemic, demonstrations are prohibited, and those joining them despite the warning are perceived by society as contributing to the infection.

In addition, there is currently no realistic candidate for the 2022 presidency in the conservative camp.  Kim is getting less than 3%, and therefore the conservatives are actively looking at Attorney General Yoon Seok-youl, who increasingly earns political points thanks to the image of an incorruptible guardian who tries to imprison not only those corrupt officials whom the authorities point him out to, but also those who are related to close circle of the president.   In the meantime, Kim’s term as party chairman expires in April 2021, when elections for heads of municipalities in Seoul, Busan and other cities take place. The outcome of this battle will show how the Conservatives prepared.

In summary: the new political slogan (“People’s Power”) is an important claim of the conservatives to try and follow the path that the democrats have taken during this time, gaining support from the people, criticizing the authorities, putting forward a positive agenda and regaining previously lost positions. The opposition party’s new name reflects a determination to expand its base of support, but the party must prove its new ideals through action.

So as they say, “stay tuned to see what happens next!”

Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, leading science associate of the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East of the RAS, specially for the internet magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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