The main opposition Liberty Korea Party is still struggling to rebuild itself after its fall that stemmed from the ouster of former President Park Geun-hye. Former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn joining the Liberty Korea Party should provide it with the momentum to overcome Park’s legacy and regain public trust.
Hwang’s entry into the Liberty Korea Party, which paves the way for him to run for the party’s leadership next month, is already stirring Korean politics because recent opinion polls showed that he is one of the leading potential candidates for the next presidential election.
The ruling party of President Moon Jae-in is reacting sensitively because of Hwang’s potential to emerge as a strong leader of the opposition party and conservative forces as a whole, which have been mired in disarray since the impeachment of Park.
Indeed, even before he signed the papers to join the Liberty Korea Party, Hwang was popular among conservative voters. A recent public opinion survey put the former prime minister atop a list of potential presidential candidates preferred by conservative voters.
He was picked by 21.1 percent of respondents, far ahead of the 14.3 percent who chose Yoo Seong-min, the former presidential candidate who is now a member of the center-right Bareunmirae Party.
The same survey showed that the No. 1 favorite of left-leaning voters was current Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, at 18.2 percent.
More surveys show that within the conservative block, Hwang’s popularity is unmatched for now. A poll of supporters of the Liberty Korea Party and Bareunmirae Party found 80.3 percent of the respondents prefer Hwang as the next presidential candidate.
In short, many conservatives and those in the center-right believe that Hwang has a higher chance of uniting the Liberty Korea Party and resuscitating the conservative forces than any other.
This may well pose a threat to the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, whose goals, as its leader openly and repeatedly has said, is for progressive forces to keep power for at least 20 years. It was hardly surprising that the ruling party fiercely criticized Hwang for entering politics.
The ruling party’s attacks on Hwang focus on what they believe is the former prime minister’s weakness: that he served as the justice minister and prime minister in the Park administration. He also served as acting president when Park’s presidential duties were suspended by the National Assembly before the Constitutional Court upheld her impeachment and removed her.
The logic is that having served as the No. 2 man in the Park administration, Hwang cannot avoid responsibility for the corruption and influence-peddling scandal that led to Park’s impeachment.
But such accusations make little sense. Those who had been directly involved in the corruption and influence-peddling scandal involving Park and her civilian confidante Choi Soon-sil have already been prosecuted.
The fact that Hwang emerged unscathed despite massive investigations targeting people who held senior positions in the Park administration shows Hwang did not have any direct responsibility for the scandal.
Nevertheless, Hwang faces challenges from his own party, where the factional strife that widened in the wake of Park’s ouster has yet to be stitched.
For instance, some party members loyal to Park accuse Hwang of having done little to protect her during the impeachment process. This does not mean that all anti-Park members are welcoming Hwang. Some express worries that Hwang’s stint in the Park administration may stand in the way of the party’s efforts to shake off Park’s legacy and restore public trust.
All these aspects show that Hwang’s first job should be to patch up the exposed seams inside the party. What Hwang and the Liberty Korea Party members should be reminded of is that the party’s persistent factional division after Park’s impeachment precipitated the bottomless fall of the party, as was seen in the worst-ever election defeat in last year’s local elections.
A Liberty Korea Party united under strong leadership is essential not only for reviving the conservative forces, but also for rebuilding a healthy, robust opposition that can check the government in power.