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(New Year Special) Local polls, constitutional revision to dominate S. Korean politics in 2018

All News 09:00 December 29, 2017

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Dec. 29 (Yonhap) -- South Korean politics face a rough ride yet again in 2018, as rival parties gird for high-stakes local elections, with the divisive issue of a constitutional revision likely to put them on a collision course, analysts said Friday.

The political landscape is set to undergo a major realignment ahead of the June elections, with conservatives pushing to regroup to counterbalance their assertive liberal rivals and minor parties stepping up their middle-of-the-road campaign, they said.

In the second year of his presidency, President Moon Jae-in may forge ahead with his drive for "cooperative politics," but acrimony with the opposition bloc could deepen amid his campaign against "accumulated ills," which his foes cast as "political retribution."

"How the opposition bloc will be reshaped to whip up sentiment for keeping the ruling bloc in check and whether the president can maintain his high public support (into the elections) will be the key barometers to gauge how South Korean politics will pan out next year," Jun Kye-wan, a political analyst, told Yonhap News Agency.

This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows President Moon Jae-in and his office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul. (Yonhap)

For the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP), next year's gubernatorial and mayoral elections are a crucial opportunity for a political redemption after it was shaken to the core by a massive corruption scandal involving now-jailed former President Park Geun-hye.

To boost its chances of a win, it has been seeking to unify the fractured conservative bloc and carrying out sweeping reforms, notably through measures to dissociate it from Park and her key allies within the party.

Amid the looming prospect of a political realignment, the top brass of the minor opposition People's Party have been spearheading a campaign to rally "rational liberals and reform-minded conservatives" so as to position itself as a viable centrist alternative to the major parties -- the ruling Democratic Party and LKP.

The center-left party will soon finalize its plan to merge with the minor conservative Bareun Party, which could bring the total number of its lawmakers in the 299-member parliament up to 50.

The Bareun Party, hit by mass defections, has warmed to the merger scheme as it strives for survival at a time of political flux.

The merger could affect the political fortunes of the ruling and main opposition parties as some lawmakers in the minor parties could defect to either of them to protest what they view as an unlikely marriage between the parties with no ideological kinship.

The prospect of a change in the parliamentary dynamics has put the Democratic Party on edge, as it could lose its tenuous status as the largest force at the National Assembly. The ruling party currently holds 121 parliamentary seats, five more than the LKP.

This photo, taken Dec. 6, 2017, shows a parliamentary plenary session in progress at the National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap)

The tortuous process of a constitutional revision is likely to escalate political tensions next year.

Despite months of parliamentary deliberations, rival parties remain poles apart over how to retool the Constitution, though they share the need for a revision to reflect social and political changes since its last amendment in 1987.

The parties have even failed to reach any consensus on the timetable for the revision process, as the LKP rejected the ruling party's push to hold a public referendum on the revision in tandem with the local elections.

The LKP argues that holding the two polls concurrently would run the risk of politicizing the amendment issue, and that fixing any timetable for a referendum would make the revision proposal half-baked.

Also at issue is how to reshape the basic law to address the current concentration of power in a single leader that has long been blamed for power abuses, corruption and intense political polarization.

During his election campaign, Moon called for changing the current single-term, five-year presidency into a four-year presidency that allows for only one re-election. He has said the change would help ensure consistent policy implementation with long-term visions.

But his foes balked at Moon's proposal, raising the possibility that a change in the presidential term could be exploited to extend a leader's grip on power. Some prefer a change that would give more authority to the prime minister to diffuse state powers dominated by a president.

This photo, taken Aug. 2, 2017, shows lawmakers discussing a constitutional revision at the National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap)

The debate over how to alter the parliamentary election system from the current single-seat constituency to a multiple-number system is another political minefield, as parties are split based on their calculus of political interests.

The multiple-number system would weaken the domination of major parties and facilitate smaller parties' advance into the National Assembly. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the ruling or main opposition party would easily countenance a shift in the election system.

Another political fault line concerns Moon's wide-ranging campaign to redress graft, power abuses, cronyism, rights violations and alleged election interference by state organs. The campaign has put a series of conservative opposition lawmakers in the prosecution's crosshairs, fueling the talk of a political reprisal.

The campaign will likely continue next year, but the president may soft-pedal it to secure the opposition bloc's legislative support to advance his reform agenda, including the reshaping of power organs, such as the prosecution long accused of political bias.

"The president has begun to talk of a change in focus from the accumulation of past ills to the importance of enhancing people's livelihoods," Jun said. "For legislation to address livelihood issues, setting the tone for cooperation with opposition parties is of great importance."

The political landscape next year could also be affected by external factors, such as the country's relations with North Korea, the United States, China and Japan.

Claiming the security sector as their forte, conservative parties have continued to attack the liberal government's policy drive for inter-Korean dialogue and rapprochement, pressuring it to adopt a tough-line stance on the pugnacious neighbor.

This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Yonhap)

The parties have also upbraided the government for a lack of tangible progress in the efforts to restore ties with China, which have been strained due to the installation of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea, which Beijing argues would undermine its security interests.

Chilly relations with Japan is another point of attack. Following Seoul's recent review of its 2015 deal with Tokyo to settle the long-running issue of Japan's wartime sexual enslavement, uncertainties loom over the prospects of bilateral relations.


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