Elections are in the horizon for South Korea: legislative elections are scheduled for April 2016 while presidential elections are to be held in December 2017. With about nine months of campaigning to go under a president that seems under pressure of public disapprobation, and with the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) seemingly in disarray, this looks to be a good time for ruling Saenuri Party officers to re-evaluate loyalties to the “lame-duck” President while underlining allegiances to the public. It seems that floor leader Yoo Seung-min did just that: he brokered a deal with the opposition NPAD to pass the President’s public service pension reform by acceding to the NPAD’s demands to pass the National Assembly Act. Yet, within weeks of the path-breaking effort, both Yoo and the hard-won reforms would suffer the fall-out of the President’s wrath.
The National Assembly Act allows for the legislature to “request” changes to the president’s decrees or ordinances (itself a change from the previously, more strongly-worded “demand” changes in the Act). The Act, primarily targeted at reducing the executive’s influence on the investigations into the Sewol tragedy, provided for parliament to request a revision or change to an enforcement ordinance that requires the relevant ministry to respond to the request. The nimble balance of delivering on an important policy on the President’s agenda while acknowledging the public’s demand for greater accountability without compromising (and, indeed, perhaps enhancing) the ruling Saenuri party’s election chances was no mean feat. Indeed, the National Assembly Act was passed by 211 lawmakers – more than two thirds of the 298 incumbent members of the legislature – so that its strong support would underline to the President the significance of the brokered agreement.
Yet, the President not only came out blasting against the legislature’s “unconstitutional” encroachment of presidential powers but also threatened to veto the Act, and with it, the civil service pension reform bill that had been painfully and painstakingly negotiated. And, the President did not stop there. Following her veto on June 25, the President proceeded to cold-shoulder floor leader Yoo – notwithstanding his apologies and efforts to mend bridges with the executive – and her own party, until Yoo resign as floor leader for his “betrayal.”
Following the President’s veto, the Saenuri party recoiled from the Act, choosing to boycott the vote revisiting the Act and allowing the bill to die. The ruling party also recommended floor leader Yoo’s resignation from the post in a general assembly meeting, which Yoo accepted.
What is perhaps most curious is that these series of events have progressed while President Park is personally experiencing the most significant slide in public approval of her career, marked in turn by Sewol ferry disaster in 2014, an “influence” scandal in January 2015 that eventually led to the replacement of her highly unpopular chief-of-staff Kim Ki-choon, a huge corruption scandal that engulfed chief architects of her 2012 campaign as well as her government revealed in the aftermath of a business tycoon’s suicide in April 2015, to be followed by the government’s missteps and mishandling of the MERS crisis in June 2015.
What does this mean? At a minimum, it shows that the President retains significant political clout, which may set up political battles between the sitting President and prospective presidential candidates for control of the party going into elections.