[Viewpoint]Politicians are not above the lawIncomprehensible things are taking place in the political community nowadays. The legislators who make the laws have started to ignore them and try to act above them. It is not that surprising because that is something that used to take place regularly after elections. What is remarkable this time is the degree of their arrogance. Without any qualms, they argue that politicians who are being investigated on charges of election law violations during the presidential election in December and the recent National Assembly elections should be exempted from punishment.
They are of the opinion that, although some irregularities by politicians were revealed during the elections, they should be overlooked now that the elections are over. The sense of justice and the law-abiding spirit that they reaffirmed whey they pledged to carry out fair and positive campaigns has disappeared. Gone are the efforts to ensure transparency in the nomination of party candidates and the bold reshuffling of incumbent lawmakers intended to touch the hearts of the people.
The unreasonable remarks by these politicians are more than sufficient to provoke public rage.
People reject the argument that investigations of politicians who have violated election laws are tantamount to oppression of opposition parties and are targeted to get rid of certain political factions.
Some politicians say, “The prosecutors are investigating the special party funds of the opposition in close consultation with the governing party, and this is something that has never happened before in the history of our Constitution.”
The opposition has criticized the prosecutors, saying: “This didn’t happen even in the days of terrorism under the Fifth Republic. How could the prosecution lose their dignity and be degraded so much?”
They do not trust the judicial system. Their argument asserts that covering up illegal acts by politicians demonstrates political maturity and proves that politics works in our society. Even a passing cow would laugh at this. The political world is primarily responsible for this pathetic situation.
If we cannot solve the problem, we cannot help but depend on the courts and the prosecutors, even though their performance so far has not been very reliable.
A meeting of senior prosecutors in charge of public security affairs was held last month. The participants reaffirmed their resolve to strictly punish election law violators and people involved in illegal electioneering.
They even presented a “prosecutorial standard” to enhance the fairness and transparency in prosecuting election-related irregularities. It was intended to seal off, from its source, the controversy over the elastic application of prosecutions, which is said to be applied differently depending on which party the accused belongs to.
Isn’t this a familiar story? The prosecution released a 30-level prosecution standard in 2006, right before the local elections. It is awful to see, repeatedly, politicians making big promises when there is an election, only to renege on them afterwards. Shouldn’t they just handle things according to the law?
On March 17 the Supreme Court held a meeting of presiding judges in charge of election-related crimes. The principle that election law violators should be punished strictly was announced. They also resolved to abide by the revised election law, which stipulated that a final judgment on election law violation cases should be made within one year of indictment.
It also sounds familiar to us. The Supreme Court made the same promise to the people in 2006, right before the local elections. However, only half of the election law violators in the 17th National Assembly elections were prosecuted within the legally defined period.
It is also said that the court has done self-reflection on the practice of giving reduced penalties on appeal and imposing fines of only 800,000 won ($803) on election law violators. This is good.
The peculiar thing about election law violation cases is that they are non-negotiable. There is no chance the situation will change, as in a criminal case, in which the victim can agree to a settlement, or the damages can be compensated with money.
Nevertheless, more than half of the accused get reduced sentences at appeals court trials. Out of 28 people who were sentenced with penalties that could nullify their status as lawmakers at the first trial, 18, or around 64 percent, got reduced penalties at the appeals court trials and were able to keep their status as Assembly representatives.
If they are penalized with a fine of more than 1 million won, they lose their status as lawmakers. What is the reason that there are so many 800,000 won penalty rulings? In the 17th National Assembly, 10 lawmakers were able to keep their status by getting an 800,000 won penalty. Among them were five lawmakers who at their first trial were sentenced to punishments that would have invalidated their election.
Imposing a punishment that invalidates one’s election is a judgment that the accused is not qualified to assume public office. It is not right that these people are able to stay on as Assembly members for one or two years. Allowing such politicians to participate in the deliberation of draft laws or voting in the Assembly is a serious distortion of the people’s will and shakes the foundation of representative democracy.
I hope the resolve expressed by the court and the prosecutors will be implemented properly this time. It is my firm belief that the court and the prosecution are the last bastion of democratic values and social justice.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Woo-suk