Former presidential candidate Representative Ahn Cheol-soo announced his departure from the NPAD on Sunday, December 13, 2015, ending a troubled relationship with the opposition alliance that he co-chaired when it was officially launched in April 2014. The NPAD has had its share of problems, failing to fill the role as a viable opposition expected by members and supporters. Still, Ahn’s departure is a significant blow: it bares open the fractures within the alliance that the leadership has ineffectually tried to reconcile. Meanwhile, with about four months till the general elections in April 2016, the fragmented opposition is likely to hand the electoral advantage to the ruling Saenuri Party, as the following account shows.
The first signs of trouble in the opposition alliance surfaced soon after its founding, on the issue of party-nomination reforms which the NPAD had pledged to observe for the June 2014 by-elections. Closed-door party-nominations have been blamed for feeding corruption, public disapprobation, and distrust; consequently, the NPAD’s initial resolve on reforming the process promised to bring “new” politics to challenge the predominant politicking-as-usual. However, while the NPAD pushed hard for the reform, the Saenuri party maintained the party-nomination process, which advantaged its party candidates. In the face of the growing disadvantage, NPAD members challenged the reform while old-timers such as Gwangju mayor Kang Un-tae and party spokesperson Representative Lee Yong-sup quit the party. In response to the open rift, voters handed the by-elections to the Saenuri Party, giving the party 11 seats but only four to the NPAD. 20 NPAD party leaders, including co-chairs Ahn and Kim, resigned from their leadership posts to take responsibility for the trouncing and a major leadership change was underway.
The leadership change seemed completed at the party convention in February 2015, with 2012 opposition presidential candidate Rep Moon Jae-in installed at the helm. At the same time, however, the contest laid bare the three major factions in the alliance: (1) Moon, who leads the pro-Roh Moo-hyun faction that comprise supporters of the deceased former president; (2) Rep Park Jie-won, a leader of the pro-Kim Dae-jung faction that comprise supporters of the former president and Nobel-peace prize winner; and (3) Rep Lee In-young, a leader of the 486 faction that comprises former student activists and protestors of the authoritarian regime. Moon’s successful election did little to stem the party infighting. As a result, notwithstanding poor approvals for the president and the ruling party, the NPAD managed to snatch defeat from sure victory (again), losing all four seats in liberal strongholds in the April 29, 2015 by-elections, with three going to Saenuri and one to NPAD-turned-independent candidate, Chun Jung-bae.
Since the 2015 by-election routing, the NPAD has openly feuded over responsibilities for the results. Ahn is not the first to bolt the party following the rising hostilities in the party, but his standing in the party is likely to induce others to follow suit. Thus, Ahn’s confidant and chief-of-staff, Rep. Moon Byung-ho, is expected to announce his departure by mid-December, and Moon predicts between 20 and 30 current NPAD members will join Ahn to create a new party. If Ahn and his allies manage to pool at least 20 seats in the legislature, Assembly rules means that it will be entitled to government subsidies and other parliamentary privileges.