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Conservatives reel from election loss

June 15,2018
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Hong Joon-pyo leaves the headquarters of the Liberty Korea Party in Yeouido, western Seoul, on Thursday after resigning from the party chairmanship. [YONHAP]
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Newly elected lawmakers celebrate with the chairwoman of the Democratic Party in the National Assembly on Thursday. The 11 Democratic lawmakers won their seats through by-elections on Wednesday. [YONHAP]
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The leaders of two opposition parties resigned on Thursday as the country’s conservatives begin a process of soul-searching after bruising defeats in nationwide elections on Wednesday.

Hong Joon-pyo, chairman of the Liberty Korea Party (LKP), stepped down from his post in the country’s largest opposition party, and Yoo Seong-min of the center-right Bareunmirae Party resigned as co-chairman to take responsibility for the losses. The LKP won only two seats among the 17 major gubernatorial and mayoral races. The Bareunmirae Party won none.

“We are completely defeated and the whole country is now handed over” to the Democratic Party, Hong said in a news conference. “It is all my fault, and all responsibility lies in me. I respect the people’s judgement.”

With Hong’s 11-month stint at the helm of the LKP coming to an end, the party is in crisis mode. In the interim, floor leader Kim Sung-tae will take over while the party organizes a convention to select a new chairperson. Kim Moo-sung, a former LKP chairman, and former floor leaders Lee Wan-koo and Chung Woo-taik will likely vie for the position. But if anti-establishment sentiment continues to fester in the party, a fresh face could emerge.

Hong’s resignation came hours after Yoo stepped down from the post at his party. “I did my best to sow a seed of reformist conservatism,” Yoo said in a news conference, “but it fell short of meeting people’s expectations.”

The leader of the nascent party, just five months old, attributed the loss to confusion among voters about the party’s identity. “I will try to find a path to reform politics to save conservative politics and principles,” Yoo said, without going into details about what his next political move might be.

Park Joo-sun, who co-chaired the party with Yoo, will lead the party himself until members elect a new leader - that is, if the party does not dissolve or merge with another party. The Bareunmirae Party itself was the result of a merger between two centrist parties.

While the two largest opposition parties spent the day in self-reflection, the Democratic Party and President Moon Jae-in were celebrating. The local-level elections delivered a strong mandate for his administration’s liberal agenda.

“The people have given the government a big help with the highest voter turnout in 23 years for local elections,” Moon said in a statement. “I solemnly take the people’s support.”

The Democratic Party won the governor’s house in seven out of nine provinces, including some traditionally conservative regions. It won the mayor’s office in every major city except Daegu. The landslide victory left opposition parties scrambling to figure out what went wrong and raised the possibility of another reshuffle among the scattered right-leaning parties.

Just a few months ago, not even the LKP predicted such a terrible loss. The party, which lost the presidency to Moon in May last year, was banking on a message of “checking” Moon’s power. But the president and his party have been riding high on record approval ratings, thanks to improving relations with North Korea and rapprochement between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Kim Sung-tae, the LKP floor leader, called the election results the worst that any political party could imagine. Two provinces and three major cities flipped to the liberals, including South Gyeongsang, a right-leaning province where the Democratic candidate faced allegations of meddling with online opinion in favor of his party. Despite the scandal, he won the seat.

Busan and Ulsan, two conservative cities bordering South Gyeongsang, also went to the Democratic Party. This is the first time that the three seats have gone to liberals.

Attention now turns to who will lead the opposition parties and how they will challenge Moon, whose approval rating this week continues to hover in the mid-70s, unprecedented for a South Korean president in the second year of a term.

On the campaign trail, Hong criticized Moon’s engagement with North Korea, calling his efforts to declare an end to the Korean War - which technically concluded with a cease-fire - the “biggest catastrophe for the nation,” but his party’s supporters could demand someone who advocates North Korea policy more in sync with the new circumstance of improving inter-Korean relations.

Such a stance would mark a shift from the LKP’s traditional hard-line position toward Pyongyang which calls for the North’s complete denuclearization as a precondition for dialogue, a stance adopted by Moon’s two conservative predecessors, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.

Chung Jin-suk, a four-term LKP lawmaker, said the party needed to change its hard-line stance on the North despite its status as the backbone of Korean conservatism.

“We are living in a different time now,” Chung told Yonhap News Agency. “We can’t receive people’s support with conventional conservative values. Since conservatives emphasize freedom, we need to shift gears to stress the importance of a free market economy.”

Meanwhile, the other opposition party, the Bareunmirae Party, failed to win a single executive position and only managed to elect 26 city council members, far short of its expectations. Another shock was its Seoul mayoral candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, finishing third to incumbent Mayor Park Won-soon and LKP contender Kim Moon-soo. The loss represented yet another political disappointment for Ahn after two failed presidential runs and raises questions about his political future.

“It is all because of my shortcomings,” Ahn said on Wednesday after exit polls showed his third-place finish. “I will take some time to look back on my deeds.”

Some conservatives are now calling for the Bareunmirae Party and LKP to merge into one big-tent party. If this happens, some Bareunmirae lawmakers who defected from the now-disbanded People’s Party - and have more liberal views than fellow party members originally from the LKP - could leave the Bareunmirae Party in protest.

A smaller opposition party, the left-wing Party for Democracy and Peace, which has its support base in the Jeolla region, is reeling from losses in three key races: North and South Jeolla and Gwangju.

The party also won none of the 12 by-elections for National Assembly seats. The Democrats took 11, while the LKP won one.

There are currently 14 Party for Democracy and Peace lawmakers in the National Assembly, and they could seek a merger with the Democratic Party since many of them have roots in the ruling party. If combined, they would command a 144-large majority in the 300-member legislature.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]