On January 18, a joint declaration was made by Ahn Cheol-soo and Yoo Seung-min to announce their plans to merge the People's Party, led by Ahn, and the Bareun Party, helmed by Yoo. While they have been fiercely competing to win voters' hearts since last year's presidential election, the two leaders decided to bury the hatchet and usher forth a new era of integration, a firm determination that shone through their recent announcement. Unsurprisingly, they have been subject to immense backlash. Under the common banner of "New Leadership," will the two parties be able to brave their way through the rough terrain of Korean politics?
According to the official statement, the two parties will be integrated into a new party named the “Bareun Future Party.” Creation as such is one of the two ways through which parties can merge under the constitution of the Republic of Korea, the other being absorption of one party by another. While absorption results in one party losing its identity and the other party expanding, creating a new party that encompasses all previous parties establishes an equal balance between the participants in the merger. In this way, both parties are able to safeguard a sizable share in the new party and avoid alienating their supporters by not giving the impression that one party is being subsumed into another.
The creation of this new party aims to rehabilitate both parties' public images from incidents that they went through last year and instill hope in the local election that is scheduled for June. This is imperative for Ahn and Yoo because they and their parties have suffered through scandalous affairs, such as the incident surrounding the People's Party's attempt to undermine President Moon's campaign by fabricating evidence that his son received preferential treatment. Considering that, due to these incidents, the power of the opposition parties is weaker than ever in Korean politics, the two parties cannot avoid looking for an innovative breakthrough in order to succeed in the upcoming elections.
Ambitions of Their Own
The former rivals' decision to hold hands is in line with Ahn's not yet realized ambition to drastically transform politics in Korea. Once a successful entrepreneur, a respected professor, and beloved mentor to the youth, Ahn allegedly waded into the muck that is Korean politics to propagate his belief that the political scene is in dire need of change. Although he suffered a bitter defeat in his first bid for President, he declared that he would continue to strive toward his ultimate goal. To that end, Ahn's primary goal in the merger is to expand his supporters. If the two parties successfully merge, the integrated group can expect a surge in their approval ratings by absorbing supporters from both parties.
▲ Yoo Seung-min. Provided by Focusnews
Yoo's greatest concern is to keep his party from disappearing. The Bareun Party has been continuously faced with the threat of extinction since its inception due to its lack of party members. During the last election, the party could not prevent many of its members from leaving the party in the midst of the campaigning period and eventually received less than 10 percent of all votes. To make things worse, a large group of politicians withdrew from the party again shortly after the election and the party had to suffer the indignity of losing its position as a floor negotiation group.
Along with struggling against the paucity of its members, the party has also been having trouble gathering support from the people. Although it touted itself as the pioneer of a new conservative trend, the party failed to attract many conservative voters. After the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye, a number of conservative parties fought to take the place that the Saenuri Party once had as the major conservative party. Among them was the Bareun Party, w h i c h originated as a group of politicians who stood against the impeached president. However, the Liberty Korea Party seized the title of leading conservative party during the election, leaving the Bareun Party in an impossible predicament.
Obstacles to Overcome
Despite his dreams of grandeur, it seems that Ahn's ambition is not appreciated by his own party members. On January 24, a group of members of the People's Party who opposed the integration announced that they would split from the party and make a new party of their own named the "Democratic Peace Party." In this case, the integration yields much less progress than expected. "The integrated party would have wanted to expand its supporting class by gathering support from both the Honam region, which is dominated by the People's Party, and parts of the Daegu-Kyeongbuk region where the Bareun Party reigns supreme. However, as the group of Honam region based politicians left to create a new party, the cross-regional integration that many yearned for is unlikely to come to pass," commented Lee Sung-woo (Researcher Professor in the KU Peace and Democracy Institute).
▲ Ahn Cheol-soo.
The greatest concern that people have regarding the merger is the two parties' conflicting political stances. They are apprehensive that Ahn is overreaching in attempting to unite opposing parties regardless of their respective philosophies; by extension, to some, the merger is a ploy to siphon off more votes from the Democratic Party of Korea. Their trepidation is not unfounded, since President Kim Yeong-sam previously united three parties despite the opposition from party members and the public, and eventually used the merger to become President. In this sense, Ahn's opponents claim that the merger with the Bareun Party is only the beginning and that Ahn will later try to absorb the Liberty Korea Party as well.
Although the two parties are both opposing parties, they differ wildly with regard to their policies and regions that support them. "The main priority for a political party should be to protect its political identity, and the two parties are as incompatible as water and oil," said Jo Bae-sook, a member of the Committee for Protecting the People's Party. In particular, the two parties hugely differ in their stances towards North Korea. While the Bareun Party advocates hardline policies, a large number of members in the People's Party hew close to the political tastes of the Honam region, where citizens strongly support former President Kim Daejoong's sunshine policy.
The merger marks a bitter conclusion, one where the two parties that ambitiously heralded the beginning of a "New World" ended up in losing their name and identity. The People's Party previously saw an unprecedented growth rate with warm support from young voters. The background that Ahn had as a non-politician worked as an advantage that fueled individuals’ expectations that he would be different from old politicians. Similarly, the Bareun Party focused on establishing a new image as the reasonable conservative that aims to uphold age-old conservative values. Although the century demands of the world a novel innovation, change is not easy to achieve in politics. Now with both parties heading for another “New World,” the challenge shall last longer this time.