[Viewpoint] Political donation laws unrealistic

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[Viewpoint] Political donation laws unrealistic

There is something that everyone pretends to know about but actually doesn’t: classical literature. Hence the bromide that classical works are the books that everyone thinks they should read but only a handful actually has read.

On the other hand, there is also something that most people pretend to know nothing about but in fact actually do: pornography.

The common denominator of the two is shame. Classical books make people ashamed because they haven’t read even one from cover to cover, while porn films ... they may have seen too many.

When it comes to political donations, some people fall in the classical literature camp and others are on the pornography side.

The general public knows almost nothing about political donations. Yet the public views critically those who are found to have given or received political donations illegally.

Politicians, on the other hand, know all too well how political donations work. But few of them talk openly about them, as if the subject was pornography. At the same time, the general public abhors political donations as if they were porn flicks whereas politicians think highly of them as if they were classics.

No one in the world is free from money, and politicians are even more bound to money than the average person. Many politicians have wound up in jail because of money matters. It is very difficult for politicians to carry out their work without being summoned by prosecutors, who often issue accusations over illegal donations.

Those representatives we voted into office through direct elections - such as our former presidents, legislators, heads of local governments and education superintendents - are summoned by prosecutors whom we have not elected.

It is easy for everybody to judge and criticize others over money affairs. But the law must be realistic. If the gap between the ideal and reality is too wide, most give up ideals and compromise with reality. The current regulations and law covering political donations are far from reality.

For an election of an education superintendent, for instance, a candidate needs 3 to 4 billion won ($2.4 to $3.2 million) to campaign but is prohibited from receiving even a penny in donations. That means a candidate must spend his or her own money or borrow it from someone else.

What’s the result? Those with deep pockets can use their own money to enter politics. However, those who are not lucky as the rich aspirants should owe somebody from the outset.

Those who want to become the president or a legislator are not allowed to receive donations of any kind until a certain point [in the election cycle], when they can then form a supporters’ group. The time limit, however, is too short and the cap on donations too unrealistic. This leads candidates to borrow money or take donations illegally.

The prosecutors judge whether these loans are legal or not. And if the powers that make decisions on the legality of donations - the prosecutors, courts, the National Election Commission and the National Tax Service - can punish those who were elected, we have a crisis of democracy.

Unless realistic and legal regulations for political donations are enacted, all politicians are potential criminals once they enter politics. Those who are already in the political community will tremble whenever a scandal over political donations breaks out.

The saying that all politicians are balancing atop a prison fence is not a joke. It is reality. Politicians are not saints. Passing all responsibility down to politicians’ morality without fixing unrealistic laws and regulations is not democracy.

In the United States there was once a time when politicians took illegal donations and used the money freely. However, after a bundle of cash was found during the Watergate investigation, the whole system relating to donations was reformed. As long as political donations are raised and used in a transparent and legal way, there is no limit on the amount a politician can receive or spend. The United States has accepted it as the cost for democracy.

Even though politics does not reach the category of art, it should certainly not be treated as porn. In “The Reader,” a movie that swept the Academy Awards, there’s frontal nudity, but nobody views the scenes as obscene.

Although politics is an object of abhorrence to the general public, it can be an object of love as well.

This is a time to reform our institutions for political donations. We need to get something good out of the Park Yeon-cha scandal.

*The writer is a political consultant and the chief executive officer of Minn Consulting. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Park Sung-min
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