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(LEAD) (News Focus) Rival parties gauge aftermath of fast-track drive ahead of 2020 elections

Politics 15:46 April 30, 2019

(ATTN: CLARIFIES 13th para; ADDS more info at bottom)
By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, April 30 (Yonhap) -- As a couple of parliamentary panels have succeeded in placing key reform bills on the "fast track" amid vehement objections from the main opposition party, a key question is what the potential impact on the political landscape ahead of the 2020 general elections will be, experts said.

The ruling Democratic Party (DP) and three minor parties voted overnight to press ahead with the crucial step in their efforts to expedite the handling of the bills on electoral reform, the establishment of a special unit to probe alleged corruption by high-ranking government and public officials, and enhancement of the police's authority to conduct probes.

The four parties described the move as a triggering point for reform drives, pledging efforts to pass those bills through the National Assembly as early as possible.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) strongly denounced it as reflecting "the left-leaning bloc's tyranny." The conservative party did not join the package deal and threatened to boycott all formal sessions in the current National Assembly.

Rep. Sim Sang-jeung, head of the special parliamentary panel on political reform, bangs the gavel at the National Assembly in Seoul on April 30, 2019, to confirm the designation of an election reform bill as a fast-track measure. (Yonhap)

The deal is the outcome of political negotiations between the ruling party seeking to set up the probe unit and the minor parties aspiring to revise the election law for the 2020 general elections.

Following a weeklong political storm, the dust has settled, after DP and LKP lawmakers even engaged in physical scuffles and filed complaints with the prosecution against each other in a tit-for-tat manner.

Experts said the latest row appeared to be a decisive event for each party in crafting strategy ahead of the parliamentary elections set for April 2020.

"For the ruling DP, the fast-track drive appears to have set the stage for the liberal Moon Jae-in government to push for its key reform agenda," Yu Yong-hwa, a visiting professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said.

"But the row also brought to the fore the ruling party's inability to embrace the main opposition party in seeking cooperation for legislative efforts," he added.

The establishment of the investigative unit was one of the key election pledges by President Moon as part of his efforts to reform the judiciary and the prosecution.

During negotiations with the three smaller parties, the DP backed down from its original proposal on the unit, indicating that it was willing to compromise in pushing for the agency's establishment this time.

The fast-track drive provided the liberal party with a chance to affirm the power of working in solidarity with the other three parties.

But the DP also faces an immediate challenge in drawing cooperation from the LKP as it wants to pass an extra budget bill and other key proposals on people's livelihoods during the upcoming May extraordinary session.

"The DP will actively move forward in seeking negotiations with opposition parties for the passage of (the fast-tracked bills)," Rep. Kang Byung-won, DP floor spokesman, said.

"The Korean economy faces heavy headwinds. We will also do our best in improving the people's livelihoods," he added.

For the LKP, the fast-track row may have helped refresh its image as the main opposition party committed to deterring the ruling party's agenda.

The conservative party suffered a crushing defeat in last year's local elections as it was reeling from the fallout of the ousting of scandal-ridden former President Park Geun-hye.

The LKP is still plagued by deep-rooted internal factional strife between followers of Park and non-supporters.

But almost all LKP lawmakers participated in rallies in the National Assembly and outside in a show of solidarity against the fast-track bid.

"The LKP may have earned some support from conservative voters. But the people could probably turn their back from the LKP due to its members having rallies with physical scuffles and violence," Yu said.

A public petition calling for the disbandment of the LKP has gathered more than 1 million signatures on the website of the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae.

Lawmakers of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party lie down at the National Assembly on April 30, 2019, to block other parties' lawmakers from entering a meeting room for the designation of an election reform bill as a fast-track measure. (Yonhap)

The minor opposition Bareunmirae Party (BP) was dealt a heavy blow from the fast-track row as even its existence is being threatened due to severe internal strife.

BP floor leader Kim Kwan-young forcibly replaced its two lawmakers sitting on the special panels last week in a bid to ram through the fast-track bid, inviting strong condemnation from party members.

The BP came into being in February 2018 through a merger of two minor parties with divergent support bases -- one is center-right and the other is left-leaning.

The merger of the two parties was viewed as a bold experiment in South Korean politics, where regional loyalties remain strong. But party members have failed to integrate well due to different chemistry coming from their respective support bases.

"The controversy confirmed that the party's identity is at risk. We cannot exclude the possibility that the party may be split or that a new party forms ahead of the elections," political analyst Yu said.

Experts said the rival parties will likely seek a compromise eventually, as stoking prolonged tensions will be burdensome on the both sides ahead of the 2020 elections.


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