Candidates of ward offices for the June 13 local elections have to hand out their business cards to at least 3,000 residents daily to familiarize their faces to voters. This alone cost at least 2 million won (1,850 U.S. dollars). It also entails a significant cost to produce banners that are placed at key locations in their wards and official election bulletins that are submitted to local election commissions for dissemination to voters.
According to the National Election Commission, the official election cost incurred to candidates for 25 ward office chiefs in Seoul in the 2014 local elections ranged from the minimum of 109.44 million won (101,000 dollars) to the maximum of 257.08 million won (237,000 dollars). According to the Civil Servant Election Act, candidates can get reimbursement for these costs after elections. Any candidate who wins 15 percent or more of the vote gets full reimbursement for their election expenses. A candidate who wins 10 percent or more can have 50 percent of their expenses reimbursed.
However, these rates are a hard-to-reach target to most independent candidates. These candidates do not have the luxury of partisan support or public visibility. They do not have solid endorsement from alumni groups or influential organizations of people hailing from same hometowns. Under this circumstance, if this reporter chooses to use the entire retirement pension to run in the elections, the chance to go broke eventually is as high as 99 percent.
These expenses are just a tip of the iceberg compared with “invisible expenses” or expenses for which receipts are not or cannot be issued. The prevailing argument is that the entire election costs including those for party convention and election camp organizing and management add up to an amount close to the cost of a mid-size apartment unit in Seoul. For this reason, there is an old saying in Korea that if the farther gets addicted to political careers, his children should do whatever takes to block him.
A number of former and incumbent officials of the Seoul metropolitan city government expressed their intention to run for ward office chief elections, saying, “I want to use my 30-year experience in city administration to dedicate myself to the development of my own ward.” With less than one week to go before the candidate registration date, however, the number of aspiring candidates that have quit exceeds that of those who continue to run. For this reason, they even say things, such as “If I don’t secure party nomination, I will just end up losing my wealth” and “It is not dream that ordinary civil servants like us can even afford to aspire.”
There are few cases in which significant problems have actually surfaced, but rumors say that certain civil servants have given “envelopes” (with bribes meant to curry favor in HR evaluation) to ward office chiefs, who have the right to determine civil servants’ promotion and transfer. Not a few ward office chiefs have been criminally convicted for taking kickbacks in return for business favors as well. Some critics sarcastically say that it may be better for the mayor just to appoint ward office chiefs, rather than getting them elected through a vote. Voters have heavy responsibilities to ensure fairness in elections.
Jie-Hyun Roh email@example.com