By Kang Yoon-seung
SEOUL, Dec. 27 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's National Assembly is expected to have four major parties for the first time in 20 years following the split up of the ruling Saenuri Party on Tuesday, as the country gears up for a presidential race amid growing political uncertainties caused by the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye.
A group of 29 lawmakers, who expressed discontent with Park loyalists in the ruling Saenuri Party over the impeachment of the president, officially bolted from the party to create their own parliamentary negotiating body. The new party, tentatively named the New Conservative Party for Reform, is expected to be launched Jan. 24.
The split is expected to fuel uncertainty over the country's political landscape. South Korea had a four-party structure in 1996, but the parliament has for the most part been led by two major parties.
The separation not only forced major changes to Saenuri but to the parliament as well, which has been struggling to normalize state affairs in the aftermath of the alleged influence-peddling scandal involving Park and her confidante Choi Soon-sil.
Among the most notable change is South Korea's main opposition Democratic Party, which currently holds 121 of the 300-seat National Assembly, emerging as the biggest player. The change could bolster the party, which has been winning support from the public after successfully passing the impeachment motion.
The ruling Saenuri Party, now with 99 seats, is trailed by the People's Party with 38 seats, while the dissenters group will form the fourth negotiation body in parliament.
The new party body will initially start with 30 lawmakers, as Rep. Kim Yong-tae, who left Saenuri before the official split, will also join.
The parliament also has the minor Justice Party and independent lawmakers, but they fall short of meeting the minimum requirement of 20 lawmakers to form a negotiation body.
Political watchers said that under the more traditional two-party structure, South Korean politics were usually divided down conservative and liberal lines, or by a regional rivalry centered on the Gyeongsang and Jeolla provinces. The multiparty structure, on the other hand, will facilitate some form of change and could even lead to the forging of fresh alliances.
Political pundits expected the splinter People's Party, which has a presence in the progressive-leaning Jeolla region, to join forces with the new party.
The two parties can find common ground as they both seek to fight against the mainstream, namely loyalists of Moon Jae-in, former head of the Democratic Party and backers of President Park.
Such a move is also vital as the People's Party, which still holds the casting vote in the National Assembly is trying to find new strategies to make itself stick out. If successful, the alliance of the two is expected to rake in dissenters from both the Saenuri and the Democratic parties, and can even emerge as a strong political force.
Besides the shuffling of power in parliament, Saenuri's split could herald the first time in nearly 20 years that South Korea may have presidential contenders from more than two major parties.
Following the impeachment, the Constitutional Court is currently reviewing the legitimacy of the impeachment. If it approves Park's ouster, the country will have 60 days to hold a presidential election.
"Under this scenario, the country could hold an election as early as March instead of December, which would have been the case if Park was not impeached," a local watcher said. He added that if the elections are held earlier than expected, it will be hard for both the conservative and liberal blocs to come up with a single candidate, respectively.
On the issue of candidates, many South Koreans are currently paying close attention to what action will be taken by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Ban, who returns home in January after the end of his term, is widely expected to run for president, although he has not made an official statement.
The U.N. head is well-respected by conservative voters and can appeal to independents.
At present, Ban is running neck and neck with Moon in most opinion polls here, despite never having said he will run and with no party ties.
With Moon and Ban dominating the polls, there is little space for other contenders. Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung and Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo, however, have been making their presence known. Both belong to the opposition bloc.
Under such circumstances, both Saenuri and the new conservative party will likely compete to allign themselves with Ban. For Saenuri, this is critical since Rep. Yoo Seong-min, who is at least known to the public, left the party.
"The only reason why Saenuri is standing is because its members are hoping that Ban will come to their rescue," one political scientist claimed. "If that hope is lost, the party could collapse."
The new party, meanwhile, said Ban is unlikely to join Saenuri.
"Although the decision is for Ban to make, we do not think the U.N. head will go to Saenuri, a party whose political life has virtually ended," Rep. Kim Moo-sung of the new party said.
On the other hand, if the top court turns down the impeachment, South Korea is expected to hold the election in December as scheduled, as it is unlikely that Park will step down from office voluntarily, pundits added.
If so, local parties will have more time to sort out contenders that could potentially lead to a single candidate coming from each bloc.
Local parties, meanwhile, will also go through changes in the amount of money granted by the government. Currently, half of the subsidies are equally distributed among negotiation bodies, with the remaining amount being shared depending on the number of lawmakers.
Accordingly, the new party is expected to receive 1.5 billion won (US$1.2 million) in February next year. Saenuri will receive 3 billion won, which is 700 million won less than before the separation.
Saenuri lawmakers will be forced to get new seats in parliament, as the party with the most lawmakers gets to sit in the center of the chamber facing the podium.
The new conservative party says it is set to bring more changes to local politics down the road.
"We will continue to expand by joining ties with officials from the opposition bloc, who wish to cooperate with our vision of seeking an innovative conservatism," Yoo said.
"Although we had been reluctant to contact opposition figures, we will now become more active in order to meet more people," Yoo also said. "There will be more members from Saenuri that will join the new party, depending on our success."
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