The remarkable electoral success of the People’s Party at the April 2016 general elections –38 seats, beating some of the most optimistic predictions – boded well for a party that was formally launched less than three months earlier, on February 2, 2016. Here is a party that defied expectations of decimation, sometimes from fires set within the party itself. Instead, the party looked set to play a pivotal role in the legislature: with no majority party in the legislature, the People’s Party is well-placed to lend support to the liberal Minjoo legislative plurality or join hands with the rest of the legislative opposition to stonewall, if not defeat, the government’s policies. And, despite his defeat at the presidential polls, Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, cofounder of the People’s Party, looked to be a viable candidate in presidential elections 2021 with his name recognition and experience. However, the latest scandal may bury the party: at a press conference on Jun 26, 2017, the emergency committee of the People’s Party revealed that an audio tape which surfaced on May 5, 2017 – allegedly proving that President Moon Jae-in’s son received special treatment to join the Korea Employment Information Service (KEIS) – was fabricated. People’s Party member and youth committee vice-chair, Lee Yoo-mi, has been arrested under the Public Official Election Act for making and releasing the fake audio tape. Lee has alleged that she was directed to make the tape by senior party members, and the fact that Lee was a former student of Representative Ahn at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology threatens to incriminate the highest ranks of the party. Here, I track the highs and lows of the People’s Party.
The People’s Party was formally launched in February 2016, then-led by Representative Ahn Cheol-soo and Representative Chun Jung-bae, both of whom left the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD). Representative Ahn Cheol-soo, co-chair of the NPAD, left on December 13, 2015, following open disagreements with NPAD’s then-chair, Moon Jae-in. Ahn’s departure ended a troubled relationship with the opposition alliance that officially launched in April 2014, but it also bared open fractures within the alliance that the leadership had ineffectually tried to reconcile. Representative Chun Jung-bae left the NPAD in March, 2015 and successfully won the Gwangju seat as an independent in the April by-elections. 1
Ahn and Chun pooled 20 seats in the legislature to achieve a legislative negotiation bloc for the People’s Party; under Assembly rules, it was entitled to government subsidies and other parliamentary privileges, such as negotiating legislative calendars. However, not long following the official launch, senior party members fought openly over the possibility of merging with the Minjoo Party. Still, the People’s Party managed to smooth over the early difficulties to almost double its share of legislative seats in the general elections.
Soon after the general elections, however, the People’s Party was hit by a campaign kickback scandal: two of its proportionally-elected legislators and a deputy secretary general for the party were alleged to have demanded and received kickbacks from advertisers for the campaign. Both Ahn and Chun stepped down as co-founders to take responsibility; while the scandal may have singed Ahn’s position as leader of the party, it probably helped preserve Ahn’s politically “clean” image. As a result, when Ahn signalled his intention to run for the presidency, his candidacy had good momentum: some polls even showed him leading over Moon Jae-in at one point. Interestingly, the lead over Moon followed the resurfacing of the allegations that Moon’s son received special favours to assume the job with the KEIS.
Moon would go on to win the presidential race subsequently, with Ahn in third place after Liberal Korea Party candidate Hong Joon-pyo. Ahn has kept low since the elections, but is facing calls to respond given his steady drum-beat of nepotism and special favors immediately following the fabricated audio tape. For now, party leaders have disavowed any knowledge of the fabricated tape, and also disclaimed any knowledge that Ahn may have had. Still, with the arrest of Lee and Lee’s insinuation of senior party members’ involvement, the investigation is likely to burrow deep into the party, at the party’s peril.
- Yap, O. Fiona (2015). “Opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) Splits?” http://presidential-power.com/?p=4263, December 16, 2015. <last accessed June 28, 2017>