[Editorial] Implement changes, Democratic Party

Posted on : 2021-04-08 16:47 KST Modified on : 2021-04-08 16:47 KST
The ruling party must treat the outcome of the by-election as a warning from the public
Seoul mayoral candidate Oh Se-hoon and Busan mayoral candidate Park Hyung-jun defeated their respective Democratic Party opponents Park Young-sun and Kim Young-choon in the by-elections Wednesday. (Yonhap News)
Seoul mayoral candidate Oh Se-hoon and Busan mayoral candidate Park Hyung-jun defeated their respective Democratic Party opponents Park Young-sun and Kim Young-choon in the by-elections Wednesday. (Yonhap News)

South Korea’s opposition party won a landslide victory in the by-elections Wednesday. After tallying the ballots, the National Election Commission announced that Oh Se-hoon, candidate with the People Power Party, had crushed Park Young-sun, candidate with the Democratic Party, in the Seoul mayoral election. PPP candidate Park Hyung-jun also defeated Democratic Party candidate Kim Young-choon by a huge margin to become mayor of Busan.

That’s a complete reversal of the public’s angry rejection of the opposition party just one year ago, in the general elections on May 15, 2020, when the Democratic Party won a supermajority of 180 seats in the National Assembly. The two elections are as different as night and day.

The PPP’s resounding victory appears to have resulted from the public’s disappointment and anger over President Moon Jae-in’s real estate policy, which has led to skyrocketing housing prices. Those emotions boiled over after a recent scandal about land speculation by public servants at the Korea Land and Housing Corporation.

Public anger was further exacerbated by the two-faced behavior of the Blue House policy chief and Democratic Party lawmakers who preemptively raised “key money” rents on their tenants right before the passage of a bill designed to protect working-class tenants by limiting the rate at which landlords can raise their rents. The Democratic Party counterattacked by highlighting ethical issues surrounding Oh Se-hoon and Park Hyung-jun, but that barely registered with voters.

We urge the Democratic Party to treat the outcome of the by-election as a warning from the public and to implement the necessary changes. The party must not forget that public feelings expressed in the by-election are grounded in anger over the ruling party’s hypocrisy — saying one thing and then doing something else altogether.

Voters in their twenties and thirties had already been to doubt the fairness espoused by the ruling party during the scandal over former Justice Minister Cho Kuk. They turned their backs on the party completely after lawmaker Park Ju-min and Kim Sang-jo, former chief of policy for the Blue House, jacked up rents on their property in what young voters regarded as a classic case of hypocrisy. The Democratic Party won’t be able to regain public trust without a major ethical overhaul.

That overhaul should include the thorough review of all real estate transactions by Democratic Party lawmakers that’s currently being carried out by the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission at the party’s request. If that review turns up any alleged real estate speculation, the party should hold the guilty parties fully responsible, regardless of their identity. Unless the Democratic Party roots out speculation and corruption inside the party, even at the cost of its majority in the National Assembly, it will have little chance of winning the presidential election, which is less than a year away.

The Democratic Party’s defeat in the by-elections makes it more likely that Moon will be a lame duck in his last year as president. He must not hesitate to carry out sweeping reforms, including a complete shuffle of the cabinet. He needs to restore moral discipline throughout the civil service, including the cabinet and the Blue House.

That should serve as a platform for getting tangible results in his war with real estate speculation, which is harmful to the nation. Moon needs to stick to his course of responding to public calls for stabilizing housing prices and realizing residential rights. At the same time, he also needs to rationalize well-intentioned programs that don’t work in the market. That said, it would be rash to alter his basic policy approach of increasing the supply of public housing, raising property taxes to match rising housing prices, and stamping out speculation.

The government must not hesitate to enact reform bills, including one that seeks to ban conflicts of interests and eliminate speculation by public servants. The Democratic Party needs to seriously reflect on why it has suffered so many defections not only from moderates but also from its own supporters.

Despite holding a commanding majority in the National Assembly, the Democratic Party has seemed reluctant to enact laws to improve public livelihood, including a bill that would hold companies responsible for serious workplace accidents. The party needs to realize that the main factor behind its defeat in this election is that its supporters no longer have an apparent reason to keep voting for it.

After four consecutive defeats at the national level, beginning with the general elections in 2016, the PPP has gotten a chance to rebuild. Nevertheless, the PPP shouldn’t delude itself into thinking that it won this election by earning public support through a job well done.

In all honesty, it would be more accurate to say that voters supported the PPP candidates to warn and punish the ruling party. The PPP needs to bear in mind that it will have to work diligently on reform if it wants to gain public recognition as a viable alternative.

Oh Se-hoon and Park Hyung-jun need to show genuine contrition for the moral lapses they were accused of throughout the campaign. We urge them not to misinterpret the public sentiment expressed in the by-elections as an excuse for undermining the foundation of real estate policy during their one year and two months as mayors of Seoul and Busan.

Significantly, Oh has pledged to ease regulations on rebuilding apartments and clear the way for large-scale private redevelopment projects in downtown Seoul. Those are dangerous ideas that could cause real estate prices to spike.

Then there’s PPP floor leader Joo Ho-young, who raised the “key money” rent on his Gangnam apartment by 100 million won (US$89,255), or 23.3%, and then brazenly claimed that “getting less [than the market value] could cause harm to other people.” If the party isn’t able to weed out such behavior, there’s no guarantee that the PPP’s victory in the by-elections won’t turn out to be an anomaly.

This election served as a skirmish leading up to the next presidential election, which is now a year away. The PPP came out victorious this time, but there’s no telling whether it can pull off another victory in the presidential election. That will depend on which side can find ways to improve the public livelihood, as well as which side’s behavior corresponds to the values of justice and fairness.

Both the ruling and opposition parties will soon be electing new leaders and gearing up for the presidential primaries. It’s the responsibility of both the victorious PPP and the vanquished Democratic Party to accurately assess the public desires expressed in the by-election and humbly make those desires a reality.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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