When Roh Moo Hyun was elected South Korea's President in a surprise victory last December, he vowed a sweeping overhaul of the country's graft-infested political ways. Nine months later his most ardent supporters complain that old guards in the party are blocking progress on political reform. So on Sept. 20, 37 radical parliamentarians quit Roh's ruling Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) to set up a party aimed at breaking the decades-old patronage system that is based on regional loyalties and incestuous links between politicians and business. Roh is keeping his MDP membership for now, but he has made it clear that he backs the breakaway group and will probably quit the MDP in the coming months. "The radical supporters of Roh are taking a high-risk, high-return gamble," says Rhee Jong Chan, political scientist at Kookmin University in Seoul.
The political tumult could prove to be a major distraction for South Korea as it seeks to defuse a crisis with the North, rebuild relations with the U.S., and ignite an economic recovery. No matter: A sizable minority of Korean activists are desperate to break the hold of the old factions on the country. The 37 MDP lawmakers teamed up with five breakaway lawmakers from the Grand National Party to form the new party, tentatively named the United New Party for Participatory Citizens. And two more legislators from the Internet-savvy People's Party for Reform have vowed to join. They'll be campaigning to win a third of the seats in the 272-member National Assembly in next April's general elections. But their failure could deal a devastating blow to Roh, turning him into a lame duck four years before his term ends.
That's disturbing, since South Korea badly needs a strong President. Roh's popularity rating has dropped from 70% to 40% after policy troubles ranging from labor unrest to tension with North Korea. Now the reformists' defection has turned the remaining 64 Millennium Democratic parliamentarians into a hostile force. This group largely opposes rapid political reform. If MDP parliamentarians ally with the 149 Grand National Party members, they could quash any Roh initiative.
A NOBLE AIM. Roh's allies are betting that their bold reform push will draw widespread support from jaded voters in the general elections. Candidates from the United New Party would attempt to win favor by shunning the practice of buying votes. And the party will aim to overcome the regionalism that has been key to the patronage system. "The rivalry based on regional loyalty has made it impossible for politicians to focus on key national issues. We want to break the deadlock," says Lee Bu Young, a former Grand National Party lawmaker who joined the new party.
That's a noble aim. But it's questionable whether enough voters will back it. A Sept. 20 poll showed that 16.9% of voters would support the new party, while 16.5% support the Millennium Democrats and 25.9% back the Grand National Party. Still, it's a long time until April, and the reformists are having some effect. Both the Millennium Democrats and the Grand National Party have vowed to end deals handing candidacies to big political donors. The first steps toward cleaning up South Korean politics may finally be under way.
By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul
Edited by Rose Brady