Will Conservatives Succeed or Fail After April Elections?

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On 8 April, Moon Jae-in said the ruling party’s defeat was a “rebuke from the people” and pledged to discharge his duties “with an even greater sense of responsibility, focusing on meeting the desperate demands of the people”. As presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok said, “The president has pledged to spare no effort to realize the people’s desperate demands to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, revive the economy and stamp out real estate-related corruption”.

To what extent it will stop controversial reforms that run against public opinion in doing so is a matter for debate.

The first response to defeat was the ritual resignation of the Democratic Party leadership, starting with Acting Chairman Kim Tae-Nyong. It is a classic move: the Conservatives did the same after their own failure a year ago. During the elections, the people put “many tasks before the party that need to be solved,” Kim Tae-Nyong stressed. According to him, parliamentary faction leader elections will be held on April 16 and the party’s seven-member chairman and supreme council will be elected at a national convention on May 2. Meanwhile, interim Toburo chief To Jong-hwan has promised to develop a set of reforms and strengthen the party’s ties with the people, saying the party will emerge from the double-standard trap as soon as possible. The original expression used was “ne ro nam bul”, a Confucian four-character expression that literally translates as “when others do it, it is adultery, when I do it, it is romantic love”, but the most accurate translation of this expression into Russian would be the famous meme “you don’t understand, it’s different”).

In the meantime, on April 9, five young members of the Democratic Party made an important statement: the reason for the defeat may have been that the policy of reform of the prosecutor’s office did not meet with public consensus, plus the revision of the party charter and the fact that it happened without a proper apology.

A change in the state apparatus is also planned, some of which has already been started. The main expected move is the resignation of Prime Minister Jeong Se-kyung, who is very likely to be made into a new ruling party candidate, and for two reasons. On the one hand, in such situations the prime minister always takes the blame and resigns; on the other hand, in a situation like this it is essential that the next president is a member of his own faction. Jeong Se-kyung is one of such. And among the candidates to replace Jeong as prime minister are Finance Minister Hong Nam-gi, former Interior Minister Kim Bu-kyom and Education Minister Yoo Eun-hye.

With a smaller percentage gap, the Democrats might have struggled, but a 15+% difference cannot be explained by fraud. Besides, as a good “game of thrones” player, Moon realizes that if the Democrats dare to challenge the election results, they would be playing right into the Conservatives’ hands, who have previously claimed that the 2017 presidential and 2020 National Assembly elections were rigged.

So President Moon seems to be finally assuming the lame duck posture. Winning the election would have given him some momentum, but now, barring force majeure, not only his popularity but also his relevance in foreign policy will fall. This means, among other things, that the inter-Korean stalemate is turning into a barricade: It makes no sense for the DPRK to negotiate with a man who has only a few years left in power, and it is unclear whether his successor will continue the same line. Even if some milestone events were to take place, they would be of as much use as the Kim Jong-il and Roh Moo-hyun summit of 2007, which gave fireworks of promises yet led to nothing.

This means that it will now be particularly important for Moon to bring in a man who will ensure a better fate for him than previous presidents, two of whom are in prison with the third having committed suicide under the weight of the charges.

But besides Moon Jae-in’s faction, there are other factions within the Toburo Democratic Party. Former ROK prime minister and former party chairman Lee Nak-yong is going for the presidency, holding onto third place in the ranking. But he is likely to be in third or fourth place: he was too closely associated with the lost campaign as advisor to Park Young-sun, and he comes from Jeolla province in southwestern ROK. It is the traditional stronghold of the opposition, but intra-Korean regionalism has led to its dislike in the rest of Korea. The only president from the region was Kim Dae-jung, who came to power amid the 1997 financial crisis and a split in the ruling party. And even then, he nominated Roh Moo-hyun, who hails from the south-eastern part of the country, as his successor.

Who had better luck, however, was the governor of the Gyeonggi metropolitan province and classic populist Lee Jae-myung. He has steadily held the top spot in the ranking of potential presidents for some time now and only benefits from the failure of Moon and Co, which will allow him to raise his political status as the potential savior of the Democrats. However, how far he will be able to win the intra-party vote against administrative resources remains to be seen.

Some experts, including the author, are already making cautious predictions that by March 2022 the monolithic nature of the ruling party may split and a new round of party restructuring will await us.

For the Conservatives, however, things are not rosy either. Their interim head Kim Jung-in has also resigned — partly because he promised to do so after the election, partly because his policy of rebranding the party has only partially succeeded, but he has rather failed to move the conservatives to a more centrist platform and make the party behave more innovatively. Neither has Kim been able to find a compromise with Park Geun-hye’s supporters. Chu Ho-young, the leader of the Conservatives’ parliamentary faction, became interim head, and the final change of leadership will take place, as with the Democrats, in May. And there is a chance that leaders like Hwang-Gyo An, who first condoned Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and then brought the situation to a failure in April 2020, will return to the party leadership.

It was no coincidence that in his farewell speech Kim Jung-in warned the party against “giddiness over success” and treating the outcome of the elections as if it had already won. In his view, if the party is allowed to rest on its laurels and does not build on its success, it is politically doomed.

Equally interesting is Oh Se-hoon’s position. It is clear that he will soon be making personnel changes in the city administration and related organizations, as the new mayor usually brings in his assistants, and will cancel many of the projects headed by his predecessor, and departments and organizations dealing with such projects may be downsized or even abolished.

But he will only be in power for 14 months, and then there will be new elections, already scheduled, and he must come to them with a certain level of merit, and that will not be easy.

First, several future points of confrontation are clearly visible. The first is the theoretical possibility of mass demonstrations and the mayor’s position on this. In South Korea, they are the main marker of resistance, and in a critical situation they can easily attract several hundred thousand people. The current government prohibits them for anti-epidemic reasons, but a devious trap awaits it soon. Either the population will be vaccinated quickly and successfully, enabling the Conservatives to take to the streets again, or the process will be deliberately delayed, with Moon sure to pay the price in ratings and the opposition blaming him for his criminal inaction.

The author would like to recall that the success of the “candle revolution” depended largely on the fact that the demonstrators met with no opposition from the city authorities, while the police, for example, refused to use the city hydrants for water cannons. And even if the government had a desire to disperse someone, it would run into problems.

The second is the extensive reconstruction of Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul’s main square, which began with the approval of the Blue House. It will not be hard for a Russian reader to remember how Boris Yeltsin, who used Manezhnaya Square, close to the Kremlin, as a springboard for mass demonstrations, began a massive construction project there and changed the space so that it would be impossible to hold demonstrations against Yeltsin there. Oh Se-hoon will try to cancel this project, among other things, so that demonstrations against Moon can take place quietly in the city center in full view of everyone.

The third is less ideological, but no less important. It concerns the urban planning policy of the future mayor who in the next five years is going to build over 360,000 new apartments and solve the problem of housing shortage (deregulation of renovation rules, expansion of redevelopment projects carried out by private developers). Meanwhile, the government is betting on public companies like LH, while according to Oh’s plans half of the housing will be built by private companies.

Then, the new mayor is going to remove the 35-story limit imposed by the old mayor and loosen the restriction on the ratio of areas for development. This will give him the foundation for the construction of 185 thousand new apartments in place of the old quarters, but the author foresees the talk of the opposition about the destruction of urban ecology and the destruction of the unique traditional construction, which will be replaced by “human anthills”. Exactly how much Oh will be able to loosen strict restrictions on renovation and redevelopment is a tricky question.

The fourth concerns the new mayor’s desire to review the city’s COVID-19 policy because he believes the current restrictions have failed to meet people’s needs and effectively reduce its spread. Oh is going to take more account of the needs of small businesses, which are being hit very hard by the social distancing regime.

In addition, the city council and its chairman Kim In-ho, with whom he must work, and a large part of the city administration officials are Democrat representatives associated with the late Park Won-soon. Democratic Party members hold 101 of the 109 city council seats and lead 24 of Seoul’s 25 districts. In March 2021, Kim and other councilors demanded that Oh step down as a candidate in March, calling him a “failed mayor of 10 years”.

Oh, of course, believes that there is room for compromise because municipal affairs are conducted on the basis of everyday problems, but the logic of factional struggle has very often forced Koreans to “sink” even positive projects if their author belonged to the “wrong” faction.

On top of that, Oh may have problems with funding from the center. Finance Minister Hong Nam-gi has already made a number of hints about the need for constructive cooperation, indicating likely problems with funding and more. Perhaps we are in for a war similar to the confrontation between the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General.

When Ahn Cheol-soo withdrew himself in favor of Oh, his condition was a kind of co-management. This means that Oh will have to implement some of Anh’s projects and place his people in some key positions. How well they will work together is another matter of interest, because when Ahn once did a similar thing with Moon Jae-in in the background of the 2012 elections, it ended in conflict and the formation of Ahn’s supporters into an independent party.

Some authors suggest that Ahn Cheol-soo has more complicated plans. Since the most serious Conservative leader has taken the mayor’s seat, he can’t be president-2022. This opens the door for Ahn to convince conservatives that if the Power of the People wants the presidency, it will have to unite with his People’s Party and make him the president, of course.

But how likely is it that the presidential election in March 2022 will result in a decisive victory for conservatives? On the one hand, the current trend seems to be just that. On the other, South Korean politics is very fickle, and a year ago the Democrats secured an overwhelming majority in the parliament, which will remain in power until 2024, so Moon’s successor will have to deal with this composition of the National Assembly for the first two of his five years. It will not be easy for the Conservative: his appointees and ideas will be drowned in the same way that Park Geun-hye’s political opponents did. The only hope, to repeat, is that closer to the presidential election, against the backdrop of another reformatting and renaming of the Democratic Party, there will be a split in the Democratic Party, and representatives of various factions will go to the polls “every man for himself”.

As for the “third force” claimed by former Attorney General Yoon Seok-yeol, the extent to which he will join the conservatives remains unclear.

Thus, a poignant series called “Domestic Politics of the Republic of Korea” certainly closed another season, but it is far from the last. There is little doubt that there will be plenty more for fans of political intrigue and scandal before the presidential elections of 2022.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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