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[Election 2024] The 'big tent' trial: Will S. Korea's third party coalition succeed?

Alliance of political defectors aims to end deep polarization in S. Korea's politics, but appears to be in internal battle already

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : Feb. 19, 2024 - 14:40

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From left: Former Chair of the Principle and Common Sense Party Cho Eung-cheon, Ex-Chair of the New Choice Party Keum Tae-sup, Former leader of the New Future Party and Reform Party co-Chair Lee Nak-yon and Reform Party co-Chair Lee Jun-seok greet people at a Lunar New Year event held at Yongsan Station in Seoul on Feb. 9. The lawmakers are all current members of the New Reform Party after a series of mergers. (Yonhap) From left: Former Chair of the Principle and Common Sense Party Cho Eung-cheon, Ex-Chair of the New Choice Party Keum Tae-sup, Former leader of the New Future Party and Reform Party co-Chair Lee Nak-yon and Reform Party co-Chair Lee Jun-seok greet people at a Lunar New Year event held at Yongsan Station in Seoul on Feb. 9. The lawmakers are all current members of the New Reform Party after a series of mergers. (Yonhap)

As South Korea heads into the general election scheduled for April 10, a group of recently launched parties have formed a coalition, a so-called “big tent” that has managed to make waves in the polls, despite the differences in approach and ideology of its constituent parts.

The New Reform Party, launched by former ruling party leader Lee Jun-seok last month, is at the forefront of the coalition. Recently having absorbed four other distinct minor parties, the majority of its lawmakers are former members of Korea's two biggest parties.

"(The current political landscape) is full of unproductive forms of politics that merely attempt to vilify rivals in order to win the elections rather than competing with policies or visions," the former People Power Party interim chair said during a debate hosted by the Kwanhun Club, an organization of senior journalists on Monday.

"We plan to do productive politics in a confident manner based on policies and issues that are crucial in shaping the future, unlike the meaningless competition and rivalry between President Yoon Suk Yeol and Democratic Party of Korea Chair Lee Jae-myung," he added.

In line with Lee Jun-seok's latest remarks, some political commentators suggest that if successful in establishing a viable third option, the New Reform Party and the coalition could leave a significant mark on Korea’s political landscape.

The party brands itself as centrist, but its members come from across the political spectrum. Those observers believe that if they can stay together, their sometimes fractious differences could prove to be an asset.

The majority of third parties in Korea, like many of their global counterparts, have repeated a cycle of being born ahead of elections, only to be absorbed by bigger parties or scrapped after the big event.

But the New Reform Party may be harder to eliminate by absorption. While previous third parties tended to be groups of politicians aligned with one of the main parties, the New Reform Party distinguishes itself in having both left- and right-wing members, political commentator Lee Jong-hoon pointed out.

“This is the first time in Korean history that the politicians from both left and right decided to come together to launch a single party and lead a coalition,” the political expert told The Korea Herald during a phone interview Thursday.

The New Reform Party, which pushed for right-wing policies upon its launch, soon merged with former Prime Minister and ex-leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea Lee Nak-yon’s New Future Party, which was considered center-left.

The current co-chairs of the New Reform Party, Lee Jun-seok and Lee Nak-yon have something in common -- they left their previous respective parties after being pushed out by their mainstream factions.

Lee Jun-seok became estranged from People Power Party leadership after he was forced out of his role as interim leader in 2022 due to bribery and prostitution scandals. While he continued to be a ruling party member until the end of last year, he has not shied away from voicing his disapproval of President Yoon Suk Yeol's policies.

Lee Nak-yon quit the Democratic Party in December last year, following the main opposition leader Lee Jae-myung’s refusal to step down as party chair. Lee Jae-myung has been criticized for monopolizing power within the party, which led to an exodus of several non-mainstream lawmakers last year.

Bridging the gap

Critics claim that the Reform Party is merely a hodgepodge of lawmakers with different beliefs.

Their remarks were reflected in the latest clashes between the two co-chairs of the party over the roles they would each tackle ahead of the election.

The New Reform Party on Monday announced the official designation of Lee Jun-seok as the chair of its election committee. But Lee Nak-yon disapproved of and denounced the decision as the ex-ruling party head's move to "privatize the party," through a statement made by his spokesperson. The announcement came after an intra-party policy meeting held in the morning.

Still, political commentator Lee Jong-hoon claimed such clashes could work in favor of the party instead of becoming a liability.

“With no lawmaker hopefully willing to monopolize power within the New Reform Party, they would likely resolve their intra-party conflicts and issues through arguments and debates, which is quintessentially the most democratic way,” he said.

Lee Jun-seok said during Monday's debate that he would "not be able to pursue any moves" regarding election campaigning "without considering Lee Nak-yon's opinions."

Its “democratic traits” are a crucial reason why the party needs to survive, Lee Jong-hoon stressed.

“A bleak future awaits Korea’s democracy if the New Reform Party and the coalition fails. … The sense of extremism in the political sphere will only widen, with a noticeable number of center-left and center-right lawmakers already quitting the two major parties.”

Goal of 30 plus seats

It is unlikely that the New Reform Party and the coalition will challenge for a majority in the 300-seat National Assembly, with the two main parties continuing to dominate the polls.

According to a Real Meter survey conducted on Feb. 15-16, support for the ruling People Power Party came to 39.1 percent, while the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea saw 40.2 percent support.

The New Reform Party, which was included in the survey for the first time, was on 6.3 percent. Other minor parties such as the Green Justice Party, launched in 2012 and one of the largest third parties here, had 2.2 percent support, while the Progressive Party established in 2017 had 1.6 percent support.

The survey involved 1,009 eligible voters across Korea aged 18 or older.

However, they could successfully make an impact in a similar way to the People’s Party, which was launched ahead of the 2016 general election by centrist politician Ahn Cheol-soo. It managed to secure a total of 38 seats in the Assembly at the time, a rare feat for a third party.

Lee Nak-yon has said the party's goal is to occupy at least “30 seats in the National Assembly,” in a recent radio interview.

Lee Jae-myung earlier this month said he plans to stick with the current mixed-member proportional representation system for the April election.

The system, introduced to Korea in 2020, was initially adopted to help minor parties by distributing more proportional parliamentary seats to parties deemed popular among voters but less represented in constituencies. However, the two major parties at the time, the Democratic Party and the People Power Party's predecessor the United Future Party, took advantage of the system and launched satellite parties to gain more seats.

Despite the system’s failure to live up to its stated aim of empowering third parties, it could still gives them leverage.

“The current voting system is a double-edged sword for the third parties. But overall, it could empower them and even give them the chance to launch their satellite parties through the coalition,” Shin Yul, a professor of political science at Myongji University said.

The Korea Herald is publishing a series of articles on the general election in April, which will give shape to a new National Assembly of 300 legislators who will lead the future of deeply divided Korean politics. This is the first installment. -- Ed.