[VIEWPOINT]Suddenly, everyone’s a reformerSometimes one gets the feeling that politics is a wondrous thing. Who was it that said politics makes the impossible possible? The Grand National Party, which had maintained a negative view on political reform until recently, now is putting forth all kinds of “innovative” reform ideas every day. What is even more surprising is that the United Liberal Democratic leader Kim Jong-pil, who would seem to be as far from reform as possible, is also calling for political reforms. Whatever the reason, it is a welcome change.
In this atmosphere, the political sector has agreed on such political reforms as abolishing local chapters and publicly managing elections.
Among these political reform proposals, the most eye-catching one is the abolishment of local chapters. Until now local chapters have been criticized as “money-guzzlers,” the biggest examples of high-cost politics. The cost of maintaining a local chapter varies from politician to politician, but is reported to be around 20 million won ($17,000) a month. That amounts to 240 million a year, making it a total cost of 1 billion won for a legislator to keep up a local chapter during a four-year term. The pre-tax annual income of a National Assemblyman, even when including all sorts of payments, only amounts to 100 million won. Therefore, he or she would need to receive more than 300 million won in donations or party subsidies to maintain a local chapter, let alone funding an election campaign. Under these circumstances, the abolishment of local chapters is a desirable example of the political sector’s resolution to shed high-cost politics.
However, thinking realistically, it is doubtful that the abolishment of local chapters will provide a fundamental solution to the problem of high-cost politics, as intended. Korean local chapters are technically sub-organizations of a political party, but in reality are more in the nature of private organizations, aimed at helping the local chapter head get elected. The reason it costs so much to maintain a local chapter is that local chapters are not managed by those who voluntarily participate in the party activities, investing their time and efforts in beliefs and policies they agree with, but by a paid staff. The reason it costs so much to run an election campaign is that the “organization” will not move unless money is spent.
Considering such realities of our politics, it is difficult to say that the problem of expensive politics will be solved just because we abolish local chapters in time for the general elections early next year. There is not a single politician who expects local residents who have never participated in local chapters to start voluntarily engaging in campaigns just because the local chapters are closed. Now that the local chapters are about to disappear, they will be replaced by the private organizations of the candidates. The local chapters had been functioning as private organizations of the local chapter head anyway, so there will only be a superficial change. Indeed, once the formal party sub-organizations regulated by law are abolished, election campaigns would center on private organizations, and thus there could be more money being used secretly. As an illustration, consider how the prohibition of alcohol in the United States in the 1920s ended up encouraging underground illegal sales of alcohol, rather than leading people to give up drinking.
If high-cost politics is the result of organizations mobilized by money, then the solution lies in encouraging the participation of volunteers, or reinforcing the regulations that prohibit mobilizing organizations with money. Because we can’t expect the rate of voluntary participation to increase overnight, the only alternative left is to make the politicians give up running money-fueled election campaigns by enforcing political funding laws. In short, what is more urgent than abolishing local chapters is establishing a strict supervisory system over the income and expenditure particulars of political funds, and punishing illegal deeds strictly and without exception.
Reform is always a challenge to vested interests. Only when there is a firm resolution on the part of the political sector to create a new, fundamentally different political environment, at the cost of giving up its own interests, is political reform possible. However, the proposals to abolish local chapters and prohibit supporters’ associations, the results of which cannot be guaranteed, can hardly avoid criticism that they are nothing but tricks to distract the public’s attention from the investigation into last year’s election funds. The political sector still does not seem to understand the public’s desire that it change its old ways.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Soongsil University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kang Won-taek