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(Yonhap Feature) Calls mount for electoral reform to boost political diversity

2018/08/23 09:00

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By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, Aug. 23 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's political circles are facing growing calls to reform the nation's parliamentary electoral system, as the current winner-takes-all district scheme falls short of representing voters' diverse voices.

Political debate over election reform has long been deadlocked due to parties' differing interests. But the issue has recently gained fresh traction as minor parties are increasing their presence in the nation's politics traditionally dominated by two major parties.

The focal point of the proposed reforms is the German-style mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation system and the multi-member constituency scheme.

Under MMP representation, the number of parliamentary seats that each party receives is tied to the percentage of voters' support for parties. The multi-member district system calls for the election of several members per precinct.

This photo taken on June 13, 2018, shows South Koreans casting their ballots for local elections. (Yonhap) This photo taken on June 13, 2018, shows South Koreans casting their ballots for local elections. (Yonhap)

"The current single-member district system generates so many dead votes," Jun Kye-wan, a political analyst, said.

"As Korean society wants more diverse voices, there are growing calls to realize representative democracy in a full-fledged manner," he said.

South Korea conducted its first general election in May 1948 with a single-member constituency system, under which 200 lawmakers were elected for a two-year term.

In 1973, the iron-fisted President Park Chung-hee adopted a multi-member district scheme, partly to secure election of candidates from his unpopular party.

A single-member precinct system was revived in 1988 as part of democratic reforms one year after a popular uprising forced the authoritarian Chun Doo-hwan government to adopt a direct presidential election.

In 2004, the country also introduced proportional representation, allowing a voter to cast two ballots for parliamentary elections.

One ballot is cast to pick a single representative for each district and the other to pick a party for proportional representation, which currently makes up for 15.7 percent of the total parliamentary seats.

This photo provided by the National Election Commission shows South Koreans voting in the country's first general election held on May 10, 1948. (Yonhap)  This photo provided by the National Election Commission shows South Koreans voting in the country's first general election held on May 10, 1948. (Yonhap)

The existing system has contributed to advancing Korea's democracy, but it has also benefited mostly large-sized parties, stifling the growth of minor parties, critics said.

In particular, the scheme is blamed for aggravating regionalism that has long dominated South Korea's politics. Korea's large parties have regional ties to either the southeastern Gyeongsang provinces or the southwestern Jeolla provinces.

Last Thursday, President Moon Jae-in expressed his "strong" support for the election reform.

"I wish to state that, personally, I strongly support a revision to the election system that would ensure representation and proportional representation," Moon said at a meeting with the floor leaders of five political parties.

New parliamentary speaker Moon Hee-sang also called for the overhaul.

"A potential constitutional revision would be meaningless if electoral reform does not back it up. People believe that parliamentary seats should be proportional to the number of votes they cast," the speaker said on July 18.

Minor parties are active in preaching in favor of MMP representation as it could help them expand their clout.

If adopted, alloted seats for each party would be first filled with those who are elected in constituencies and the remainder would be occupied by proportional representation.

In February 2015, the National Election Commission, the election watchdog, proposed to parliament the introduction of the MMP representation.

It calls for adjusting the ratio of lawmakers elected in constituencies and those who get seats via proportional representation to 2-to-1 in the 300-member assembly. Currently, the number of lawmakers from proportional representation stands at 47.

This file photo shows the main building of South Korea's National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap) This file photo shows the main building of South Korea's National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Chung Dong-young, the new chairman of the minor Party for Democracy and Peace, stands at the forefront in demanding electoral reform.

"The reason for our party's existence lies in reforming the election system," Chung said on Aug. 5 after being elected as its chief. "We cannot cooperate if the government and the ruling party are inactive on this issue."

   On Aug. 12, he proposed expanding proportional representation seats to 100 while keeping intact the constituency-based spots. Under his plan, the total number of lawmakers will rise to 353 from the current 300.

The Bareunmirae Party (BP), the third-largest party, and the minor opposition Justice Party are also in the same boat.

The Justice Party said it will devote itself to the political reform preached by Rep. Roh Hoe-chan, an iconic progressive politician who jumped to his death in July amid an illegal political funds probe.

But the ruling Democratic Party (DP) remains cautious about imminent election reform as it could easily win the 2020 parliamentary election under the single-member district system. Public support rates for the DP stand at less than 40 percent.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) was previously lukewarm toward the overhaul, but it has recently hinted at reversing its stance to seek cooperation with minor parties for a constitutional revision.

In February, the National Assembly Research Service unveiled its hypothetical results when the MMP representation and multi-member district systems were retrospectively applied to the parliamentary elections held in April 2016.

A change in the system could have worked in favor of the People's Party, the predecessor to the BP, by more than doubling its seats. But the governing DP could have lost nearly 40 percent of its seats.

"If introduced, the MMP representation could become a good alternative," Yu Yong-hwa, a political analyst, said.

"Smaller opposition parties could use electoral reform as a bargaining chip in exchange for their cooperation with the ruling DP," he said.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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