Why vote in local elections?The local council represents the views and preferences of residents, and serves as a check on the local government to make sure it is implementing decisions made by the council.
On May 31, voters around the nation will elect 3,867 leaders of local governments and legislators of local councils. City mayors, provincial governors and district heads will be chosen along with representatives for city, provincial and district legislative councils.
Under the system of local self-directed government, eligible residents of each electoral district vote for their own leaders of local governments and legislative councils to administer affairs in their areas.
A local government is an organ to which the central government has delegated some of its power to run the district. It has autonomy, or the right of self-government. It is empowered to organize itself, to administer the affairs of the locality or region, to make local ordinances and legislation and to secure financial resources for its operations and development programs. Members serve a term of four years.
Historically, Korea’s system of local government dates back to the Goryeo era’s Sasimgwan system. Under the system, the central government of the Goryeo Dynasty gave some founding members the authority to run their hometowns with some independence.
Korea’s current system of local autonomous government began in 1952, but it was suspended after the May 16, 1961, military coup. It was revived in 1991, but local elections were limited to voting for representatives in local councils. Voting for the heads of local governments began in 1995.
In this year’s local elections, the National Election Commission accepted registration of candidates on May 16 and 17 and the official election campaign period, limited by law to 13 days, runs from May 18 to 30.
Under the modern system of autonomous local government, a local council gathers opinions and suggestions from residents about local issues and proposed initiatives, determines what actions to take (whether to approve or disapprove) and what resources to use. The local administration implements the decisions made at the local council.
The local council therefore represents the views and preferences of residents and also serves as a check on the local government to make sure it is implementing decisions made by the council.
In the upcoming elections, the Seoul Metropolitan City mayor, six other metropolitan city mayors and nine provincial governors will be elected, along with heads of 230 gun (provincial districts) and gu (city districts) .
The autonomous local government system allows residents to resolve issues in their regions that are too local for the administrative authority of the central government. Under such a system, local administrations provide tailor-made services and improvements on the welfare of residents. This puts into practice the principle of separation of powers and further develops democracy by allowing residents to actively participate in the affairs of their localities.
Sometimes, local governments and the central government may come into conflict. Local governments can become too self-absorbed or intensely focused on local concerns to the exclusion of wider social concerns and national needs. For example, local administrations pandering to parochial interests may block proposed projects unpopular with local residents ― such as nuclear waste storage ― pouring resources instead into facilities exclusively for local use, such as schools and parks.
Local governments provide services that are directly linked to the lives of residents. They provide water service and build bridges and roads. They also help poor residents and carry out preventive measures against epidemics.
For such programs, about half of the tax revenue collected from local residents is spent through local governments. Last year, local governments spent 52.8 percent of total expenditures by central and local governments. Thus, the role of local councils, which check and monitor the local governments and legislate regulations for local districts, is important.
Despite the importance of autonomous local governments, the voter turnout ― or the rate of voters actually casting their ballots in elections ― has been dropping steadily. In 1995, 68.4 percent of eligible voters participated in the elections, but the figure went down to 52.7 percent in 1998. In 2002, only 48.8 percent of voters cast their ballots.
When less than 50 percent of eligible voters participate in an election, the outcome is considered to be a poor mandate ― not a strong representation of the people.
An election is called the flower of democracy. To increase the number of people participating in the democratic process, the age when people can begin to vote was lowered from 20 to 19 starting last year. According to the National Election Commission, this year some 618,000 19-year-olds (those who were born before June 1, 1987) will be able to cast ballots for the first time.
The election watchdog said that 37.07 million people are eligible to vote in the May 31 elections. Among them, female voters comprise 50.8 percent, about 600,000 higher than the number of male voters. Of the total voters, 23.6 percent are in their 30s, while 22.6 percent are in their 40s. About 22 percent are younger than 30, while about 17.2 percent are older than 60.
For the first time, 6,746 foreign residents in Korea are eligible to vote in local elections. These foreign voters have been granted permanent residence status three years ago and earlier.
The National Election Commission also said that on average, three candidates are running for each position during this year’s local elections.
by Ser Myo-ja