[Viewpoint] Elections a corrupt roll of the dice

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[Viewpoint] Elections a corrupt roll of the dice

Voters will have to endure an ordeal selecting city and provincial education office heads during the June 2 elections. No matter who wins, serious consequences are expected, and with limited information voters will have to try to find the best candidate to handle children’s education. There may be no good candidate, but voters must find the least bad. This is not the way we should elect education office heads. This must be the last direct elections for these positions.

I would like to talk about two things: “lotto” elections and “money” elections. Candidates for education office head nationwide are awaiting 5 p.m. on May 14, when candidacy registration ends. After registration is completed, each electoral district’s election commission holds a lottery to decide the order of candidates’ names to appear on the ballot. Where a candidate’s name is placed - on top or second, or maybe at the bottom - can change the number of votes received by 5 to 20 percent. That’s why these are called “lotto” elections. In 2007, the education office elections took place along with the presidential election in South Gyeongsang, Ulsan, North Chungcheong and Jeju, and all the winners were “No. 2” candidates. At the time, the Grand National Party was No. 2 during the presidential election. This cannot be a coincidence. At the time, alphabetical order was used to list the candidates.

The National Assembly, therefore, revised the law governing local education offices to institute the random lottery system. The ballots also bear the warning, “Education office head elections are not related to political party affiliations.”

One idea proposed was that the ballots should be made in a radial pattern to avoid disputes, but it was not executed because all such ballots would have to be counted by hand.

As a result, the lotto survived. Conservative candidates from the Gyeongsang provinces are hoping to be assigned the top spot, which normally belongs to the GNP candidate in other elections, while liberal candidates from the Jeolla region are hoping for the second-highest spot, which usually goes to the Democratic Party candidate.

In Busan, the Grand National Party held a meeting on May 1 to express its determination to emerge victorious in the local elections. Eight candidates for education office head rushed to the event and passed around their name cards. Some of their campaigners shouted, “We love the Grand National Party members!”

Is this really educational? Are these really the acts of people who want to be the head of an education office?

The “money” problem in education office head elections is even more serious. The perfect example of this problem is the case of former Seoul education office head Kong Jung-tack. The upcoming election, however, does not appear any different. An election is all about organization and money. Most candidates for the June 2 elections are people who have devoted most of their lifetimes to education or educational administration.

The salaries and treatments for education officials and teachers are known to be very poor, and I am not sure how much that has improved. But it would be rare to see a candidate take out a large sum of money from his or her own pockets and spend it on the campaign. The ceiling limit for the Gyeonggi provincial education office head election campaign is 4.1 billion won ($3.6 million) and the limit for Seoul is 3.9 billion won. Unless a candidate has inherited a fortune, it is impossible for education officials to save up enough from their salaries to spend that much money.

Some conservative candidates, therefore, confessed that they frankly envy candidates who are backed by the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union. Because political party assistance is banned in the education office head elections, everything must be done with money. Campaign planners lure candidates, promising that they will organize their campaigns on credit - if the candidate wins more than 15 percent of the votes, his or her campaign spending is then fully redeemed. Those who win 10 to 15 percent of the votes receive half of what they spent. That’s why campaign planers try to seduce candidates to “spend money first.”

“No one seems to have enough money, but they are entangled with campaign planners and running till the end, as if they have let everything be decided by fate,” one candidate in the capital region complained.

Candidates are allowed to raise up to half their funds through fund-raising events, but that’s actually all debt. After winning the election, an elected education office head must feel pressured to repay such “kindness” by giving favors in personnel appointments or bids to win school lunch program supply contracts and school construction contracts.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that this should be the last time Korea selects education office heads through direct elections.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editorial writer and a senior reporter on cultural news for the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Noh Jae-hyun
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