[VIEWPOINT]Campaign finance needs overhaul

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[VIEWPOINT]Campaign finance needs overhaul

Representatitive Kim Keun-tae of the Millennium Democratic Party has been known as one of the cleaner politicians around. On Sunday he confessed that 240 million won ($181,000) in funds he spent on the 2000 campaign for party leadership was illegal, including 20 million won he accepted from the party's former adviser, Kwon Rho-kap. The revelation has stirred a furor as we head into this year's local and presidential campaigns.

Mr. Kim's confession reveals the problems of campaign financing in no uncertain terms. The system now sets the maximum amount that candidates can use, encouraging them, paradoxically, to rig the accounts to match the limit. Thrust with rigged figures, the election commission has little means to determine whether there was illegality involved in the reports, and civic groups are helpless in scrutinizing campaign spendings for lack of disclosure.

The seriousness of the problem is alarming. If this problem happened to the "Mr. Clean" of Korean politics, it means there is virtually no politician who would be able to disclaim the sin of improper campaign financing. Questions of improper campaign financing customarily have been what an administration gets caught up in, and the new administration uses them against the party of the former administration in maneuvers to steal members and manipulate electoral representation, in disregard of the people's will. In the course of manipulation, interest-peddling distorted policy guidelines and delayed political development could occur.

When so many of our political problems are related to campaign financing, Mr. Kim's confession should not be brushed aside as a passing incident. Similarly, the confession should not be taken advantage of for political purposes. It should instead be taken as an opportunity to reform the system once and for all so that politics and the country's economy are no longer held hostage by campaign financing controversies.

The first task of order is to make full and mandatory disclosure of campaign financing and spending. The Political Fund Act allows recipients to issue receipts in fixed amounts, and the sums are not made in the name of donors individually, a violation of "real name transactions" that have become the backbone of our financial system. The practice should be scrapped and replaced by contributions made only by checks with the issuers' names.

An accounting of campaign funds must not only be required when reporting to the election commission, but also must be done through accounts that are fully disclosed to the public. Any other procedures must be outlawed clearly in the Political Fund Act.

Reform is needed in contributions from the national treasury. As seen in the case that allowed the use of funds to produce souvenir calendars with calligraphic writing by a party president, the fund has become the private purse of political party presidents. The abuse perpetuates a political party system that allows the "boss" to wield power, and must be stopped if democracy in party politics is to be restored.

The 26 billion won ($19 million) in current account subsidies to the party each year must be replaced with contributions for use in primary elections. Doing so will go a long way toward reducing the scale of the central party organization, unparalleled anywhere except in socialist countries. This will also help the establishment of upcoming party primaries in our democratic system.

Matching campaign funds should be given to individual candidates, not to the party, in proportion to the number of donors who contribute a maximum 100,000 won each. With a principle that makes candidates accountable to a number of small contributors, rather than a few large ones, political corruption from influence peddling will be minimized, and a healthy political participation by the public will be encouraged.

Political fund-raising for local elections is prohibited, forcing mayoral and gubernatorial candidates to rely on questionable campaign financing. The political community must make an initiative to reform campaign financing, which will be the only way to free themselves from improper political funds and to prevent them from becoming potential criminals.


The writer is a professor of political science at Kyung Hee University.

by Kim Meen-geon

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