On June 4th, South Korea had its regional and municipal elections. Many believed that the elections would put the ruling party on trial for its many scandals and controversies: the National Intelligence Service intervention in the presidential elections, its fabricated spy incident, its privatization efforts, the botched Sewol Ferry rescue efforts. However, the opposition party won but slightly more seats than the ruling party. ISC Policy and Research Coordinator Dae-Han Song sat down with the Chair of the Education and Training Committee of the Justice Party and spokesperson for the Election Task-force Committee Kim Jong Min to explore the significance of the June 4th regional and municipal election results.
Who won the last regional and municipal elections?
If we look at the numbers, then we can say that the opposition parties won by a little bit more. However, the role of the regional elections is to put the ruling party on trial. In that regard, a victory with such slight margins was not a success. Especially because the Sewol Ferry Tragedy, which called into question all of Korean society, occurred right before the election. At first, the public was shocked: “How could all those people, many of them students, die?” Then shock turned to grief, and then to anger. Not only did the Park Geun Hye Administration fail to save anyone, but it was also unwilling to truthfully investigate its causes or change key personnel. This public outrage should have translated into votes for the opposition party. Yet, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy Party, a conservative reformist party, failed to set a left course and mobilize the public; it just stood by the sidelines waiting to see how things would pan out. In this context, the opposition parties failed to translate this public outrage into a condemnation of the ruling party.
Backdrop to the regional and municipal elections
Even before the Sewol Ferry tragedy, the Park Administration was rocked with various scandals and controversies:
First, it failed to implement its social welfare promises. During the presidential elections, the opposition had come out so strongly for social welfare that it pressured President Park to do the same. Yet, to implement these policies requires that the Park Administration increase taxes on corporations, which it is unwilling to do. So, it keeps on backtracking on its campaign policies.
Secondly, the issues of the National Intelligence Service or the fabricated spy incident were violations of democracy. However, instead of clearly addressing and resolving these issues such as by changing key personnel, the Park administration attempted to change little and just weather the storm of public outrage.
The Sewol Ferry accident happened amidst all this. The administration should have taken responsibility for their policies of deregulation that led to the accident and the lack of an emergency response plan that resulted in the failed rescue attempts. Yet, it failed and continues to fail to provide the investigation that the public is demanding or to make key personnel changes such as replacing Chief of Staff Kim Ki Chun.
The Park Administration’s inability to carry out its campaign promises, the regression of democracy, and the Sewol Ferry Disaster – all these led to a plummeting in its approval ratings to 37 percent. However, as I mentioned before, this has not translated into support for the opposition parties. This is because of their inability to translate this public disgruntlement into support.
An Opposition that Fails to Oppose
We are faced with a political crisis: the opposition can’t mount an effective opposition. In the past, when a crisis erupted, the opposition would mobilize the public and lead them to action. The opposition no longer does this. It isn’t just a failure of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy Party. The Unified Progressive Party and the Justice Party also failed to mobilize the public into action. Sure, we, progressives, can say that we tried, but that the public was simply not interested. But, while we put out strong statements, we failed to put them into action. It is the role of the progressive parties to hit the streets, to lead the candlelight vigils.
This inability to mount a collective opposition to the ruling party may be part of a world trend or a trend under neoliberalism: The opposition thinks that the public wants them to be more centrist, so even the public’s demands for greater taxes and social services are unheeded. The opposition is moving further to the right. Secondly, the progressives, whose job is to pull the opposition towards the left, are divided and have not recovered the public’s trust.
Progressives on Trial
In some ways the progressive parties (the Unified Progressive Party, the Justice Party, the Workers Party, and the Green Party) were on trial in these elections. The support the progressive parties received indicated that they have yet to recover from the Unified Progressive Party scandal. Yet, in contrast to the Unified Progressive Party, which many in the public turned their backs to, the Justice Party emerged as a type of progressive alternative. It may have just been a year since its inception, but the elections showed that the public does not yet view the Justice party as a viable alternative. In particular, we were not able to get the active support of the traditional bases for progressives such as the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the Korean Peasant’s League, the Korean Women’s Peasants Association, poor people’s organizations, civil society organizations. Rather, we received but a portion of unaffiliated voters. As regards the Worker’s Party or the Green Party, people gave them less than 1% of the vote: they are still not seen as a viable progressive alternative.
What’s next for Progressives?
The Progressive party is a culmination of the organized efforts and successes of workers, farmers, and the common people. The first division in the progressive party was in 2008 between the Democratic Labor Party and the New Progressive Party. After that, the Unified Progressive Party was the product of efforts to reunite the progressive parties. In 2012, because of a scandal where one faction attempted to establish hegemony, the progressives were divided again. The Justice Party was one of the parties that broke off.
The progressive party should not be ruled by an elite. If the progressive party won 10 proportional representative seats, then 7-8 of these should go to workers, peasants, women, the disabled. The main purpose of the progressive party is to open up political space for mass based movements. When a faction attempts to place its people in power, it is betraying the main purpose of progressive parties. When this happened with the Unified Progressive Party, support from farmers and workers plummeted.
Secondly, progressive policies should not be limited by the current political discourse; they should be forward thinking. In the past, progressives pushed policies such as free health care, free education, and free school meals. But, the progressive party no longer gets support for these policies. The public has distanced themselves.
So, we need to re-unify the progressive parties, regain the support of farmers and workers, and establish progressive policies. We need to start again.
Role of the Justice Party
In contrast to the Unified Progressive Party, which the public has turned its back to, the Justice Party is placed more favorably in their eye. However, one trend that has emerged in the Justice Party is that some want to position it further to the right so as to distance themselves from the UPP, and the Worker’s and Green Parties. We shouldn’t do this, we need to remain progressive.
Secondly, the progressive parties need to root themselves in the workplace, in the unions, in rural areas, in grassroots community efforts. But, not enough effort is put to figuring or carrying this out.
In 1999, when discussion about creating a progressive party first began, the “two winged theory” emerged. One wing was supposed to be the progressive party; the other, the KCTU and mass based movements. Each would carry out its role and come together during elections. The progressive party would create progressive policies; the mass based movements would vote and financially support the party. This is the classic Western European Social Democratic political model. There are those within the Justice Party that support such model. I disagree with them. A progressive party should be the fruit of mass based movements. There is no progressive party without a mass based movement. If the mass based movement is the tree, then the political party cannot be a separate tree; rather, it must the fruit born in its branches. That’s how the Justice Party needs to be.
Secondly, what should progressive parties, in particular the Justice Party, attempt to do? Its role is to give power to the people. This bourgeois capitalist society constantly alienates people from political power and even from the political process by making them apathetic. But, political power is necessary to change society. Workers, farmers, women, the poor, the disabled must be the ones that change society. The role of the progressive party, of the Justice Party, is to rekindle their interest and make them the main actors of the political party.
Faced with such great difficulty, hope lies with conscious individuals organizing in civil society groups, in mass based movements, in unions, in peasant associations. It is these people that will open up a new page in the history of the progressive political party.