SEOUL (AFP) - A petition calling for the South Korean government to dissolve the main opposition party has gained 1.7 million signatures in less than two weeks, in what analysts call a sign of growing intolerance in the former dictatorship.
After decades of military rule, millions of people took to the streets to demand democracy in 1987, leading to a direct presidential vote. Five years later the South elected a civilian leader.
Since then the country of 50 million, an ally of the United States with a vibrant market economy, has undergone several peaceful changes of power at the ballot box, but its democracy remains challenged.
All four of its living ex-presidents are either in prison or have previously been jailed.
Since left-leaning Moon Jae-in was elected in 2017, his ousted conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye has been sentenced to 25 years in prison for bribery and abuse of power, while her predecessor and ally Lee Myung-bak was convicted in October of bribery and embezzlement. He has been granted bail pending an appeal.
A petition posted on the website of the presidential Blue House last month called for their now renamed Liberty Korea Party (LKP) to be dissolved on the grounds it "stood in the way of government legislation".
It has since received more than 1.7 million signatures, raising concerns over growing political polarisation and intolerance.
At the same time another petition demanding the ruling Democratic party be dissolved - contending it had "blackmailed" the opposition - had garnered nearly 300,000 signatures as of Friday (May 3), easily passing the 200,000 threshold required for an official response.
"Healthy democracies are not built on trying to ban people or views you happen to disagree with," tweeted Aidan Foster-Carter, a British-based Korea expert, adding: "Mutual respect and tolerance are sorely needed."
There is a precedent for the South dissolving a party in the democratic era - in 2014 the Constitutional Court accepted government accusations that a minor opposition party posed a threat to national security as a pro-North organisation and ordered it disbanded.
HAUNTED BY DICTATORSHIP
The anti-LKP petition was posted on April 22 as the opposition fiercely denounced a package of bills backed by the ruling party, with dozens of LKP MPs lying down on the parliament floor and chanting "Down with tyranny!" to prevent them being debated.
The Blue House will not have to issue its responses until one month after the petitions were posted but Moon's spokesman Ko Min-jung told Agence France-Presse: "Rather than just lamenting the polarisation of politics, we need to try very hard to understand what has driven so many people to support the petition."
South Korea's presidency wields huge executive power, leading to a winner-takes-all competition to control the office.
The failure to reach a legislative compromise and the anti-party petitions were signs that the South was still "haunted" by the legacy of military dictatorship, said Lee Chung-hee, professor emeritus of political science at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
"Our political culture is largely defined by the black and white framework exploited by dictators in the past," he said.
"In a dictatorship, there is no middle ground on which each side can compromise," he added. "And South Koreans in general have not escaped from that mindset entirely."