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Election-Bound Ministers Criticized

Posted March. 04, 2006 03:02,   


In its March 2 cabinet shakeup, the administration announced that several ministers would be replaced. But instead of immediate assumptions of office by the nominees, the president let the outgoing ministers, who will be participating in the May local elections, stay on in their position. Although the administration says the reason for this decision is because the appointees need to undergo parliamentary confirmation hearings, the political neutrality of the administration is being questioned.

In particular, opposition parties are criticizing the government for a new form of “government intervention in elections.” They feel that the government is unfairly throwing its weight behind the ruling party by helping it recruit its candidates from the cabinet and even allowing the candidates to run election campaigns while maintaining their ministerial jobs.

A self-invited controversy –

According to personnel decisions made on March 2, Oh Young-kyo, minister of Government Administration and Home Affairs, Chin Dae-je, minister of Information and Communication, and Oh Keo-don, minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, are all resigning and running as governing Uri Party candidates for the office of South Chungcheong provincial governor, Gyeonggi provincial governor, and Busan mayor, respectively. Another man on the Uri Party’s candidate list of former ministers is Lee Jae-yong. He was chosen to compete for the office of Daegu mayor at an early stage of the election process. But his successor has yet to be selected.

Whether these ministers already have successors chosen for them or not, they are still serving as ministers. Understandably, some are raising questions over their dual and often conflicting responsibilities as ministers and candidates. Normally, ministers are supposed to remain neutral in elections. The privileges granted to ministers include aides and an official car. As the Uri Party has geared itself toward the regional elections, its election campaigns have already started.

Meanwhile, Cheong Wa Dae has made only one thing clear on March 2: that it will take appropriate steps for the transfers after President Roh’s visit to Africa (between March 6 and 14).

Paradoxically, some say this foot-dragging is not in line with the January 2 cabinet shakeup. At that time, Chung Dong-young, then-minister of Unification, hurriedly left his post to join the Uri Party for its February 18 convention. Kim Geun-tae, then-minister of Health and Welfare, resigned immediately after the government’s personnel announcement. The two ministries were temporarily headed by vice ministers until confirmation hearings on the nominees were completed.

The ministers who are leaving their posts to take part in the elections are also scheduled to join the Uri Party starting next week. But their resignations have yet to be finalized. Part of the blame should be placed on Cheong Wa Dae, but most politicians agree that it is the ministers themselves who should quit without delay.

Controversial, but necessary for smooth transition –

In figuring out why such delays are happening, some have raised an interesting point. They say that the introduction of confirmation hearings on cabinet members this year might be why.

According to the rules, when the government asks for a confirmation hearing on a potential cabinet member, the corresponding standing committee in the National Assembly should end the hearing and notify the government of the result within 20 days of the conclusion of the hearing.

Given the rules, it makes sense that an outgoing minister should not leave instantly while the nominee is preoccupied with the confirmation hearing that lasts for more than 20 days.

This is one of the arguments Cheong Wa Dae put forward for not letting its ministers go immediately after the replacement announcement. In a press conference on March 2, Kim Wan-ki, senior presidential secretary for personnel affairs, explained, “The ministers are quitting to pursue their political goals. So it is not entirely appropriate to allow them to maintain their posts until their successors are formally sworn in. But to make the transition as smooth as possible for the ministries, we plan to take steps for the transfers after the president’s visit to Africa.”

“They must step down now” –

Lee Bang-ho, a Grand National Party (GNP) lawmaker who chairs the GNP’s committee on policy, commented on March 3, “Technically speaking, an outgoing minister is no longer a minister. But the ministers whose resignations have already been announced are still taking advantage of their posts. This runs squarely against politically neutral, fair and clean elections. The vice ministers of the ministries should instantly assume temporary leadership so as not to cause unnecessary misunderstandings.”

Kim Jae-du, a deputy spokesperson for the Minjoo Party, echoed the GNP lawmaker’s sentiment, saying, “During the January 2 shakeup, the resignations of Chung Dong-young and Kim Geun-tae were processed without delay. But I have no idea why the same thing is not happening this time.” Park Yong-jin, a Democratic Labor Party spokesperson, also raised his voice against the current situation by arguing, “If the ministers decided to quit in order to run for office, they should step down now.”

Yeon-Wook Jung Jung-Eun Lee jyw11@donga.com lightee@donga.com