South Korea – Will the Opposition be a Viable Challenge in the 2016 Elections?

The successful founding of the NPAD alliance – officially launched in April 2014 with two co-chairs, the popular independent representative and former presidential candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, and Democratic Party chair Kim Han-gill, hot on the heels of Ahn’s establishment of his New Political Vision Party – offered the possibility of a viable opposition party to challenge the conservative turn in politics and policies in the country. Yet, supporters of the opposition have seen more disappointments than successes, and the 11-4 landslide in favour of the ruling Saenuri Party in the July 31 2014 by-elections did not bode well for an alliance that started off on strong footing. Will the opposition mature into a viable challenge for the 2016 elections? What lessons did the past year hold for the NPAD?

A big disappointment that contributed to the lackluster support for the NPAD was its reversal on party-nomination reforms. The closed-door nomination process was blamed for feeding corruption, and was a primary source of public disapprobation and distrust. Not surprisingly, all the candidates for the 2012 presidential race pledged to reform the process. However, while the NPAD pushed hard for the reform to be implemented in the 2014 elections, the Saenuri party reversed itself to adopt an open primary system that maintained party-nomination. Meanwhile, rifts within the NPAD over the value of scrapping party-nomination process arose, particularly since the Saenuri party’s reversal improved its candidates’ electability. In the face of a party revolt – leading NPAD members such as Gwangju’s Mayor Kang Un-tae and party spokesperson and Representative Lee Yong-sup quit the party over party-nominations – the NPAD reversed itself; to its further detriment, co-chair Ahn proceeded to pick candidates close to him for the local races. This double reversal – on the principle of “new” politics, followed by inconsistent and opaque party-nominations – fed the 11-4 hammering in the by-elections. 20 NPAD party leaders, including co-chairs Ahn and Kim, resigned from their leadership posts to take responsibility for the trouncing.

Another major set-back occurred over the opposition alliance failure to advocate for the Sewol families. In particular, then-NPAD floor leader Park Young-sun, who was elected to fill the chair position following the resignation of the NPAD party leaders, dropped a key demand that the Sewol families be granted a say in recommending candidates for the role of special prosecutor in the investigation of the tragedy. Committees representing the Sewol families blamed the NPAD – even more than the ruling party – for failing to represent their interests. Following the internal party rancor over the agreement, Park resigned her leadership posts at the NPAD. Still, the incident damaged the opposition’s standing.

At the party convention in February 2015, the NPAD elected the 2012 opposition presidential candidate Rep Moon Jae-in as leader in a contest that laid bare the three major factions in the alliance. Moon, who leads the pro-Roh Moo-hyun faction that comprise supporters of the deceased former president, beat out Rep Park Jie-won, who leads the pro-Kim Dae-jung faction that comprise supporters of the former president and Nobel-peace prize winner, and Rep Lee In-young, who leads the 486 faction that comprises former student activists and protestors against the authoritarian regime.

Since his election as opposition leader, Rep Moon has extended olive-branches to the other factions while beating a steady drumbeat against President Park’s overreach.  Whether this works against the considerable headwinds against the opposition remains to be seen. At a minimum, it is clear that the opposition is aware of the need to articulate clear policies and governance strategies that show that it is more than stonewalling or obstruction.

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