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Korea’s electoral map is being totally rewritten

July 28,2015
The reform committee of the main opposition party has opened a political Pandora’s Box by recommending a wholesale reorganization of electoral districts and proportional representatives, a plan that would ultimately increase the number of seats in the National Assembly by nearly a fourth.

The New Politics Alliance for Democracy’s (NPAD) reform committee, headed by Kim Sang-gon, a liberal icon in the education community, presented a plan on Sunday that would redraw the current electoral map. It is based on an earlier proposal by the National Election Commission.

In October, the Constitutional Court ruled the current electoral constituency map unconstitutional, saying it resulted in unequal representation caused by population changes.

The National Election Commission presented its plan in February and the National Assembly created a special committee in March to discuss the issue. The redistricting is supposed to be finalized by October.

As of now, the National Assembly has 300 seats and 264 of them are for representatives of geographical constituencies. The remaining 36 are for proportional representatives picked by the major parties. In a general election, each voter casts a separate ballot for a party, and the number of proportional representatives a party can name is determined by the amount of support it gets in that vote. Some of the proportional representatives are assigned to represent certain sectors of society, such as women or teachers.

The National Election Commission in February proposed an increase in proportional representatives: a two-to-one ratio between lawmakers voted for by constituencies and proportional representatives. It also called for proportional representatives to be based on regional votes. A political party that wins more than 30 percent of votes in a region would be able to name a proportional representative for that region, according to the plan.

The NPAD proposal also makes the selection of proportional representatives regional. The country would be divided into six regions. The number of lawmakers to be elected from constituencies and the number of proportional representatives for each region would be decided by population size. The proportional representative seats, then, would be distributed based on the votes each political party wins in the region.

The committee also said the total number of seats in the legislature should be increased to 369.

These would be major changes.

“If the National Election Commission’s proposal is realized, the two-party monopoly by the Saenuri Party and the NPAD in the Gyeongsang and Jeolla regions will break down, and small political parties focused on ideologies and policies can rise,” said Kim, the NPAD reform committee head.

NPAD Chairman Moon Jae-in expressed support for the plan on Friday when he met with the new chairwoman of the smaller opposition Justice Party, Sim Sang-jeong.

Rep. Chung Moon-hun, a Saenuri lawmaker on the National Assembly’s Special Committee on Political Reform, also reacted positively to the plan, calling it an “attempt to end Korea’s perennial regionalism.”

The proposal is controversial for its recommendation to increase the number of lawmakers. But politicians don’t want to see the number of geographical representatives decrease if the number of proportional representatives increases.

“If we want to apply the two-to-one ratio while keeping a total of 300 seats, then we have to reduce the number of lawmakers with districts by 46,” said Jung Chae-woong, spokesman for the reform committee. “That is just impossible.”

The NPAD’s floor leader, Lee Jong-kul, went a step further, saying the total number of seats should be increased to at least 390.

The ruling Saenuri Party faced a predicament.

Although its spokesman, Rep. Lee Jang-woo, said increasing the number of seats in the legislature is an idea the public is unlikely to approve, some inside the party admitted it was inevitable to respect the ruling of the Constitutional Court and the National Election Commission’s recommendation. They were, however, reluctant to openly make the argument because of the extremely low popularity of the National Assembly. The last thing the public wants is more lawmakers getting paid with taxpayer money.

According to a Gallup Korea poll conducted in May, only 5 percent of the public said they approved of the National Assembly overall.

NPAD reformer Kim said the changes are crucial to overcoming regionalism in Korean politics. The committee gave an example of how the new system could reduce regionalism.

In Korea, Busan and Gyeongsang provinces are the strongholds of the conservative Saenuri Party, and Gwangju and Jeolla provinces are the home turf of the NPAD.

According to the committee, the Democratic Party, predecessor of the NPAD, won 31.7 percent of votes in total in the districts of Busan during the 2012 general elections. However, it only won two seats representing geographical constituencies, 11.1 percent of the total number of seats representing districts in Busan.

Under the proposed system, the number of proportional representatives will be increased to 123 and distributed based on the populations of the six regions: the capital region, Gyeongsang, Jeolla, Chungcheong, Gangwon and Jeju. If Gyeongsang is to have 20 proportional representatives based on its populations, the 31.7 percent of the vote would have given the NPAD four additional seats in the region.

The Saenuri Party, however, is unenthusiastic about the changes because they will benefit the NPAD more.

In the 2012 general elections, the Saenuri Party won only 5.54 percent in Gwangju, 6.33 percent in South Jeolla and 9.64 percent in North Jeolla, far lower than what the opposition won in the Gyeongsang and Busan.

While the Saenuri leadership criticized the NPAD for trying to increase the number of National Assembly seats, ruling party lawmakers whose constituencies are likely disappear based on the redistricting of the National Election Commission support the NPAD’s plan.

“NPAD floor leader Lee argued that the National Assembly seats should be increased to 390, and there must have been many lawmakers whose districts are in farming and fishing villages in rural areas applauding that,” said a Gyeongsang lawmaker, requesting anonymity.

Both the ruling and opposition parties started saying the number of lawmakers in Korea is too small, taking into account its population.

According to a report by an advisory council of the National Assembly Speaker’s Office, one lawmaker in Korea represents 167,400 people, the fourth largest among the 34 member countries of the OECD.

BY SER MYO-JA, NAMKOONG WOOK [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]


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