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(Yonhap Interview) Opposition leader says liberal alliance is key to next year's polls
By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Dec. 15 (Yonhap) -- The leader of the main opposition Democratic Party said Thursday South Korea should focus more on sharing the benefits of economic growth, stressing that it is a goal of a new party the DP is trying to create with other liberal forces.

   The DP approved the party's merger with the minor opposition People's Participation Party, formed early last year by close aides to late President Roh Moo-hyun and other left-leaning groups, in a national convention Sunday, which was marred by fist-fights among party members.

   The move was aimed at boosting liberals' chances in April's general elections.

   "The united party is aimed at laying groundwork for victory in next year's parliamentary and presidential elections," DP chairman Sohn Hak-kyu said in an interview with the Yonhap News Agency, one day before leaving his office. "Changing power is not our ultimate goal. We will try to make a society in which ordinary people can enjoy the benefits of economic growth."


The crucial April elections could also impact the December presidential race. It is the first time in 20 years that South Korea will elect a new parliament and a new president in the same year.

   Sohn, 64, who defected from the conservative Grand National Party in 2007, worked with other progressive groups to form a united party, and backed a lawyer-turned-activist independent candidate in the October by-election for Seoul mayor.

   His push for a united party gained momentum after now Mayor Park Won-soon, the opposition-backed political novice, defeated a high-profile ruling party rival, though Sohn's authority was questioned as his party was unable to field its own candidate in the mayoral race.

   Local media said the conflicts during the DP's national convention apparently reflected the deep-rooted regionalism and divisive personalities leading factions within the party, which could further spark debates over the merger process.

   The merged party still has to decide on a platform and will have a daunting challenge when fielding candidates in local constituencies. Sohn stressed that the merged party should establish a transparent, open primary system to select competitive candidates to run in the upcoming elections.

   "A bottom-up nomination system is an unavoidable social trend," Sohn said. "The party should not select people based on regionalism, school ties and factionalism."

   The Oxford-educated politician also said the welfare issue will dominate next year's campaigns, adding that his party will pledge to expand social welfare programs and help small and medium-sized enterprises that suffered under Lee's big-business friendly policies.

   "I have pride in providing welfare initiatives as social polarization is worsening and lower-income people's standard of living is slipping," Sohn said. "We should pursue policies that can alleviate the anger and frustration of those in their 20s, 30s and 40s."

   While South Korea's hugely volatile politics make it almost impossible to confidently call the outcome until the very end of the race, most political analysts believe the GNP lawmakers, especially those in the Seoul metropolitan areas, will face difficulties in attracting young and middle-class voters.

   Asked about his 2012 presidential bid, Sohn, who is considered one of the leading presidential hopefuls in the liberal camp, laughed and gave a noncommittal answer, "I will think about that after leaving the chief post."