[INSIGHT]Points to Ponder in Election Reforms

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[INSIGHT]Points to Ponder in Election Reforms

The Constitutional Court has ruled that major changes must be made to election laws. The court said that the allocation of some legislative seats based on the proportion of votes received by political parties is unconstitutional.

The first question is whether to keep or discard the controversial proportional representation scheme; the opposition Grand National Party has said it wants it abolished. The Constitution says that election-related procedures like constituencies and proportional representation should be set out in specific laws. It does not mandate proportional representation, but it clearly assumes that such a scheme will be a part of our elections.

Around the world, there are two general types of election systems, and most countries with mature democracies use one or the other, or a merger. Those two concepts are a small constituency, where the person winning the most votes is elected, and a large constituency system, which allocates seats and selects legislators based on the proportion of votes won by political parties nationwide or on some other large scale.

The elections for the lower legislative house in the United States and Great Britain are based on small constituencies, but Italy, Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Finland use large constituencies, or proportional representation. Germany and Japan use a system that has elements of both. Small constituencies promote the healthy development of a two-party system, as in the United States and Great Britain. But because it is an "all or nothing" system, in which votes for a losing candidate carry no weight, it has an important weakness: voters' intentions can be distorted. Proportional representation fairly represents the electorate's intentions, but it can lead to problems in governing because it tends to encourage the proliferation of splinter parties.

The mid-size constituencies with two to six representatives per district adopted by Korea during the fourth and the fifth republics and by Japan in the early 1990s is neither "first past the post" nor strict proportional representation. That system has been criticized here for encouraging power sharing by the two strongest parties; and in Japan, it was branded as a leading force behind factionalism, intra-party strife and plutocracy.

So all the alternatives have problems associated with them. Perhaps the most realistic alternative is to keep small constituencies with proportional representation added, while improving the method of allocating proportional representation seats. Since one person, one vote has been ruled unconstitutional, we should change to one person, two votes - one for the individual representative and one for the party.

Proportional representation has been controversial in Korea in the past as well; the question was whether to elect proportional representatives nationwide or by smaller districts. In Japan and Germany, where small constituencies and proportional representation are combined, parties draw up rank-order lists of proportional candidates in each region, and seats are assigned depending on the votes the party attracts in that region.

Regional proportional representation has advantages when the percentage of proportional representatives is large compared to the total number of legislators. It prevents one party from amassing all the seats in a region. Half of the legislators in the Bundesrat in Germany and two-fifths of the legislators in Japan's House of Representatives are selected by proportional representation. In Korea, one sixth of the legislative seats are allocated according to proportional representation. That is too small a number to be effective; the purpose of proportional representation is to compensate for the distortion introduced by throwing out as many as half the votes from small constituencies or to ensure that non-politicians with special expertise are included in the legislature. To introduce good proportional representation by larger geographical area, the number should be increased to one-third of all legislators.

Two other points that should be kept in mind in thinking about electoral reform are more democracy in nominations of party proportional representational slates and correcting the imbalance in the size of electoral districts. The Constitutional Court made a passing reference to the possible unconstitutionality of the present method of selecting party slates, and claimed that those nominations are often market transactions: cash payments in return for being named to a slate by the party leadership. The only way to develop democratic party politics here is to ensure that proportional or regional representatives are nominated in a bottom-up - not a top-down - manner. Some electoral districts here are four times as large as others. This is undemocratic - a violation of the equal rights of the people - and ensures that our agricultural policies, for example, will be skewed.

More attention should be given not only to the problems of proportional representation, but also to the improvement of these unconstitutional and undemocratic practices.


The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Seong Byong-wook

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