Happy 10th birthday Democratic Labor Party!
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Happy 10th birthday Democratic Labor Party!

The Stark Raving Loony Democratic Labor Party is celebrating its 10th anniversary this Saturday, January 30.

The party, which models itself after the social democratic and labor parties of Europe, started off with great promise and made small but significant gains in the 2004 National Assembly elections, gaining 10 seats and becoming Korea’s third most popular party in public opinion surveys.  The DLP is unique among Korean parties that have National Assembly seats in being based primarily on ideology rather than regionalism or personality (former President Roh Moo-hyun’s failed experiment with his Uri Party being the only other recent example).*

Alas, times have not been so kind to the DLP lately.  Their candidate, party founder Gwon Young-ghil, only got 3 percent in a crowded field in the 2007 presidential election.  They only gained five seats in the 2008 National Assembly elections held five months later.  Gwon and current party chairman Kang Ki Kap won their only two districts, with the other three seats coming via PR list.

The party split between those elections.  There had long been tension between the ‘people’s democracy’ and ‘national liberation’ factions of the party, with the former emphasizing social welfare and limiting government power and the latter advocating anti-Americanism and friendly ties with North Korea.  The national liberation faction, being more ideologically cohesive, held on to the party leadership against a determined attempt at reform, resulting in the people’s democracy group leaving to form their own party.

The splinter New Progressive Party failed to win any seats in the 2008 National Assembly races.

DLP chairman Kang Ki Kap has kept the party in the news, although not always for the right reasons.

The best hope for the DLP’s continued survival is to create an electoral coalition ahead of local elections this June and National Assembly elections.  They did just that in bye-lections last year, stepping aside so a NPP candidate could run at the only progressive in Ulsan, a traditional DLP center of support.  That candidate won and is the NPP’s only representative in the National Assembly.  The DLP also picked up several local sets in the southwestern Jeolla region, the traditional home of the main opposition Democratic Party.

The DLP hopes to use that experience as a model for inter-party cooperation in the local elections this year.  If the experiment works this year, I could even see Kang (who knows he will never be president) striking an agreement not to run in the December 2012 presidential election in exchange for the DLP getting to be the only opposition party running candidates 10-15 districts in National Assembly races in May of that year.

At this point, it is all about survival.

*You can describe Korean parties as left or right, but that is based more on the personality of the parties’ leaders or the economic characteristics of their base regions than on internal ideology.