[VIEWPOINT]Election District Revision Is a Hot Potato

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[VIEWPOINT]Election District Revision Is a Hot Potato

While politicians were going for one another's throats during the by-elections last week, the Constitutional Court quietly announced an important decision that shook the political world.

The court ruled that the disparity between the population of the largest and smallest electoral districts in Korea, which now stands at 3.9:1, infringes on the equal voting rights guaranteed by the constitution. Because the court, in essence, ordered the political community to redraw district boundaries, both the governing and opposition parties reacted immediately and sensitively to the decision.

The court's ruling is a warning of sorts to both political parties that they have failed to carry out their political responsibilities. The court handed down a similar decision in 1995, and has continued to call for the legislature to ensure equality of voting rights, as provided for in the constitution.

Not only have politicians put aside this issue for too long, they have also refused to act promptly on a host of reform issues such as revision of laws on elections, political funds and the status of political parties.

One of the reasons why these pressing reform issues are still adrift is the "principal and agent" problem. As one can see in the process of political, public sector and corporate reform, one of the difficulties of reform politics is that the agent who is supposed to lead the reforms is also the principal to be reformed, whose interests are intimately connected with the outcome of the reforms.

Members of the National Assembly must decide on matters like revising laws on political funds to increase transparency and improving the electoral system to make elections fairer and more representative. But these reforms often go counter to the vested interests of politicians.

Despite the Constitutional Court's ruling, political figures will probably cite various reasons why the focus of the court's decision should be shifted. A number of lawmakers have already said that revising the electoral boundaries will disadvantage farmers. Others suggest that there should be comprehensive revisions to the election process to make all districts larger. Still others say that the size of the National Assembly will have to be enlarged - in other words, districts will be made smaller - in the wake of the court's ruling.

Some of these opinions and suggestions make sense, but they disguise an underlying attempt to protect the personal and partisan interests of lawmakers and political parties.

As the debate on redrawing district boundaries continues, lawmakers who would lose their seats through the merger of some districts will strongly object. Political parties will also try to maintain the current boundaries in regions where they are strong while reducing the number of districts in the Seoul metropolitan area and other large cities.

How then will we be able to overcome the agent-principal dilemma and pursue electoral reform aimed at equalizing voting rights? Overcoming the dilemma is possible only through grassroots efforts or a reform-minded political leadership. But because of the exclusive nature of Korea's political parties, the possibility of a reform-minded leadership emerging is not very great. In the end, average citizens who want reform will have to find a way to make their voices heard through mass political action to make sure reform actually comes about.

In particular, the committee on drawing electoral boundaries should be strengthened through citizen efforts. Just like in England, Germany and France, the committee should be independent from the parliament, and the participation of lawmakers in such a commission should be limited.

Second, before revising electoral boundaries, there needs to be a consensus on where electoral reform is headed and what its principles are.

A comprehensive debate is needed on how to amalgamate the democratic principle of one person, one vote with the goal of balanced representation of people living in urban areas and in the countryside.

In conclusion, our reality today is that we cannot trust and leave the task of political reform to the agents that we elected.


The writer is a professor of political science at Chung Ang University.

by Jaung Hoon

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