Posted August. 17, 2009 08:12,
In a speech marking Liberation Day Saturday, President Lee Myung-bak proposed reforming the national electoral system and administrative districts to eliminate regionalism and achieve productive politics. To alleviate political conflicts and confrontations which waste national energy, he also urged a cut in the number of elections and the alignment of the presidential and general elections. The proposal came two months after the president proposed the need for fundamental solutions to reform politics. With a firm determination to make a fresh start after serving one and a half years of his term, President Lee has laid out comprehensive administrative tasks. To achieve such an ambitious plan, however, public support and political consensus are necessary.
To replace the single-member constituency system, a medium and major-sized constituency system that elects two to five lawmakers in one constituency can be considered. Also under consideration are geographical proportional representation and a system under which candidates can run for both local constituencies and proportional representatives. The purpose of the reform is to eliminate the age-old practice where a political party takes all the seats in a province. Grand National Party candidates traditionally claim all of the seats in the Jeolla provinces, and those of the Democratic Party do so in the Gyeongsang provinces. If such changes are made, a party with support from across the nation can emerge and significantly weaken political conflict rooted in regionalism.
A change in the electoral system, however, is only possible when consensus between major political forces is achieved since revision of both the Constitution and relevant laws is required. Given the number of votes each party won in past elections, the odds of the Grand National Party winning seats in the Jeolla region are lower than those of the Democratic Party winning seats in the Gyeongsang provinces. This is why the Grand National Party opposed the suggestion by former President Roh Moo-hyun to set up a grand coalition under the condition of introducing a medium and major-sized constituency system.
The single-member electorate system has failed to reflect the opinions of electorates because it elects only one candidate who wins the most votes. Worse, it has aggravated political and psychological regionalism by allowing one party to dominate certain provinces. To tackle such problems, forward-looking and broader viewpoints are needed. This is why President Lee said electoral reform must be done though it poses a challenge to the ruling party.
The reorganization of administrative districts has been discussed for a long time. The 17th National Assembly presented a detailed plan based on bipartisan consensus but it went nowhere due to opposition from city and provincial chiefs in 2006. Ruling party lawmaker Huh Tae-yeol sponsored in March a revision that reduces the number of administrative districts from 230 to 60 to 70 by consolidating cities, wards and counties after getting support from 62 lawmakers. Since opposition parties have raised no objections to the proposal, an immediate change is possible if political circles are determined to make it happen.
Everybody agrees on the necessity to redefine administrative districts established some 100 years ago to reduce budget waste and enhance effectiveness in administration. The devil is in the details, however. The interests of residents and the governments of regions stand in the way of reform. In reality, change is impossible in time for next years local elections. In addition, if either the scrapping of cities and provinces or the consolidation of cities, wards and counties is impossible all at once, a gradual change for implementation by the 2014 local elections can be considered.
On the proposed cut in the number of elections, no controversy will arise if by-elections held twice a year are held once a year. Holding the presidential and general elections simultaneously needs constitutional revision, however. Considering the waste of national energy and public fatigue stemming from frequent elections, however, change must be made no matter how difficult it might be.
If political circles begin discussing constitutional revision openly, discussions on a change in power structure will ensue. The Constitution is the product of the national democratization movement that launched 22 years ago. So if constitutional revision is needed to keep up with the changes of the times and national circumstances, a careful approach based on public consensus is needed.
President Lee also emphasized a practical and centrist pragmatism in his speech. He said such an approach is the most effective way to respect a free democracy and the market economy, put the people first, and make Korean politics match world standards. He said centrist pragmatism is not a mathematical average between left and right but a balance between reality and ideals. Being practical is a method to be free from hollow ideological slogans that do not reflect the peoples lives, he said. This lofty vision must be materialized through proper policies to bring social integration and advancement.
To reap the fruits of his Liberation Day proposals, President Lee must build public consensus through policies that reflect reality. Political circles and people from all walks of life should also do their part to achieve sound politics.