It’s a bit of a hoary old cliche to say that things change fast in the world of politics. But things have changed remarkably for Korea’s Democratic Labour Party since I wrote this post at the end of 2004. At that time things seemed to be on the up and up after the party had made a major breahthrough in that year’s parliamentary elections, gaining 11 seats. But since then and particularly since October last year when it lost a supposedly safe seat at a by-election, the party has been in something of a crisis. This is really just one aspect of a more general ’sense of crisis’ being felt by the whole Korean left at the moment. How real this crisis actually is is a matter of debate, but there can be no doubt that there have been a number of major problems over the last year, particularly in the labour movement, which have reflected badly on the DLP. The most obvious of these have been the corruption scandals in the KCTU union confederation and the failure of the unions to make any real headway in many of their campaigns, perhaps most crucially over the government’s plans to extend the flexibilisation of labour.
So the current elections for the top posts in the DLP come at a crucial moment in the party’s history. The elections began last Friday and continue until 6pm Korean time tomorrow evening and will elect a number of positions including chairperson, policy chief and secretary-general. They have been covered in the English-language press (Korea Times article), although the DLP elections have been somewhat overshadowed by the concurrent elections for the leadership of the ruling Uri Party.
One interesting factor in these elections is that Kim In-sik of the Ta Hamkke faction is standing as the radical left candidate for the position of policy chief (정책 위원장), promising to push for a militant, fighting DLP that is closely linked to the struggle for rights for non-regular (flexibilised) workers. He has a blog here, which currently has a transcipt of the speech he gave a few days ago at the final rally for all the candidates. Call me superficial, but I’ve got to give him respect just for the fact that he’s the only candidate who doesn’t wear a uniform-like charcoal grey suit.
Anyway, on a more substantive level, it is important that the left wing of the party is making its presence felt and trying to influence the direction of the organisation as a whole, even if on this occasion Kim is not elected. Sometimes these days there seems to be a dreadful inevitability about the drift of social democratic parties based on working class representation toward third way/social liberal/neo-liberal politics (especially so in a time when it is no longer clear that social democracy is actually possible in practice). For the British Labour Party the process took around 100 years, for the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) perhaps 20-30. But the DLP could complete this whole process of going from raising workers’ hopes about substantial reforms to abject neo-liberal compromise in around a decade if it carries on in the current direction. And looming in the background, as we have seen in the last year, there is also that other danger that comes with the professionalisation and bureaucratisation of politicians and union leaders: corruption (something which has also hit Lula’s Workers’ Party hard recently).
Of course the radical wing of the DLP is small and divided itself between a number of different factions (전진 [Forward], 다함께 [All Together], 해방연대 [Liberation Solidarity]). The mainstream of the party is dominated by a coalition between two main factions: the social democratic wing (led by such famous names on the the Korean left as Kwon Young-ghil, No Hoe-ch’an, Tan Pyong-ho and Chu Tae-hwan) and the left-nationalist wing. This prevents the more radical factions, including Ta Hamkke, from gaining influential positions within the party. However I would have thought that this doesn’t stop them from being influential in other ways, especially when it comes to an organisation like Ta Hamkke that seems to be so well organised as well as consistent and distinctive in its politics. I hope, whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s elections, they will at least have brought the radical wing of the party to a wider audience and with it the possibility of a future for the DLP that doesn’t end with a PT or, god forbid, New Labour-type scenario. 파이팅!