[TODAY]Funds scandal is an opportunityAbraham Lincoln used $100,000 for his campaign during the 1860 U.S. presidential election. A hundred years later, John F. Kennedy became president by spending $9.8 million in the presidential election, nearly 100 times as much as Mr. Lincoln. President George W. Bush raised $193 million and used $186 million in his 2000 presidential campaign.
Even Britain, a model for clean, inexpensive elections, often had corrupt money elections until 1883. The candidates would take over the pubs of a district and treat the voters. They would buy voters’ sick livestock and damaged ships at high prices.
Parliament was shocked at the magnitude of the corruption, which reached its height in the election right before 1881, and revised the election law over three years so that candidates who gave and voters who received money would be strictly punished. Judges annulled one election victory after another of candidates who had used money and penalized voters who received money.
Whether for a presidential election or a general election, campaign costs have snowballed, and candidates have come up with all sorts of ways to raise campaign funds. The way the Grand National Party’s Choi Don-woong received 10 billion won ($8.6 million) from SK Group before the 2002 presidential election was like a scene from a James Bond movie. But election funds are only a small part of the total political funds that politicians and political parties use.
The haggling between the parties over who used how much in the presidential election has become a mudslinging fight where no one is clean. Mr. Choi’s receipt of 10 billion won was shocking in its amount and method of delivery, and the 1 billion-plus won that Choi Do-sul received was shocking in that he is a close aide of President Roh Moo-hyun. Mr. Roh and the representatives of the three parties have emphasized a strict investigation but they give the impression that they are frantically looking for a way out.
Calling for a strict investigation to clarify the truth behind election funds is so obvious that it almost sounds stupid to call for it. Why are we trying to find the truth? It is to punish those who received the illegal funds and those who gave them. Why are we punishing them? To prevent future cases of abuse and purify politics. Does punishing those responsible guarantee the transparency of political funds? No. This is merely one of the preconditions. Are there any issues that we must consider politically? There are. We must not let the economy fatally suffer from this.
Given such a serious incident, Korean politicians should make up their minds firmly to drastically revise our political practices and election fund laws before the shock goes away, mirroring the British parliament in the 1880s. A great flood brings damage. But at the same time it washes away the rotten water and trash from the rivers and streams.
The first law the United States enacted on political funds was the Pendleton Act in 1867. After that, the political fund law was revised and strengthened over 10 times. Then, in the 1970s, the Watergate scandal broke out. In 1972, the Nixon re-election campaign headquarters raised an enormous amount of money through illegal methods and secretly bugged the Democratic campaign headquarters.
The U.S. Congress revised its political fund laws to set a clear limit on the amount of money and to make it mandatory to report political funds transparently, much in the way the British parliament had done in the 1880s. One of the revisions the Americans made was the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974, which legalized political action committees. This allowed companies and labor unions to collect political funds from individuals and distribute the money to the candidates they support.
Even then, the average election campaign in the United States cost five times that in Britain. The flood of political action committees by firms, labor unions, interest groups and ideological groups threatens the functioning of political parties. But it is an inevitable price to pay to make election funds transparent.
Understandably the parties are fighting back vigorously to minimize the expected damage. The final judgment lies in the hands of the law and the people. But there should be someone who is prepared to use this incident constructively.
I urge politicians, although they are engaged in a political fight, to prepare a roadmap with the goal of making political funds transparent and drastically reducing the amount of political spendings, including election funds. A scandal is also an opportunity.
Should President Roh and the politicians use the political culture as symbolized by this scandal for their own strategies and then hide away in oblivion, it would give rise to serious anti-political resistance.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie