[Viewpoint] The numbers behind the votes

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[Viewpoint] The numbers behind the votes

Elections are not always fair. There’s always a party that produces more winners than votes, a party whose candidates make up the majority of winners even though they didn’t win the majority of votes, and a party that doesn’t win as many seats as it does ballots.

The recent local elections proved this. Let’s take a look at the numbers for 96 Seoul local assembly members. The Democratic Party took 74 seats, or 77.1 percent, while the Grand National Party won 22 seats, or 22.9 percent. The discrepancy in votes for the two parties, however, was not that big. The former won 48.8 percent and the latter 42.1 percent. The difference in votes was merely 6.7 percent, while the gap in seats a whopping 54.2 percent.

The tale is similar if you look at the elections of 25 district office heads in Seoul. The DP won 48.4 percent of the votes and produced 21 winners - 84 percent of all. The GNP won 42.8 percent of the votes but had only four candidates, or 16 percent, elected.

This isn’t the first time Korean elections have seen imbalance and unfairness. In the 1963 general elections, the ruling Republican Party earned only 33.5 percent of the votes but took 67.2 percent of the seats. Except in 1971, when the opposition New Democratic Party did a good job, that was the tendency during the entire Third Republic. In 1981, the Democratic Justice Party won 35.8 percent of the votes, yet took 47.3 percent of the seats.

It is not always the ruling party that benefits from unfairness. In the 16th general elections, the then-ruling GNP won 39 percent of the votes but 49.3 percent of all seats, but this year, it was the DP that got the bonus.

This is bound to happen in a single-member electorate system. In a two-party system, a candidate needs 50 percent of the votes plus one more to get elected. In a multiparty system, a candidate can win an election with fewer votes. In the June 2 local elections, 15 parties produced winners, some of whom won with just a small number of votes. In the city of Donghae, Gangwon, a GNP candidate was elected with merely 7.54 percent of the votes.

One can question how representational this is. Let’s do the math. Under Yale Professor Douglas Rae’s eponymous index, we add the differences between the percentage of votes and the percentage of seats earned by one party, then divide the answer by the number of parties in the election. (Only political parties garnering more than 0.5 percent of the votes are included.)

Theoretically, if all the parties earn a number of seats that is proportionate to their percentage of votes, the Rae index becomes zero. However, if a party won 100 percent of the votes but not one seat and another party won not a single vote but all of the seats, the index becomes 100. If the index registers in the double digits, it’s time to question how well the election results represented the voters’ wishes.

In the early period of the Third Republic in Korea, the Rae index reached nearly 20. During the Fifth Republic, it was more than 10. But after the 16th general elections, it dropped to a single-digit figure, though still a higher number than the average of 3.96 in the 20 Western countries that the political science professor surveyed.

In the latest local elections, the figure went up drastically. In the election for the Seoul council, it was 10.69, and in the vote for district office heads it was 11.95. The figures must be more or less the same in other areas.

When this happens, representation gets distorted in two ways. A political party that won more seats than their percentage of the votes is represented more than it should be, and vice versa. It doesn’t matter which party wins and which party loses. This is the reality of any election.

The American political scientist David Easton defined politics as a society’s authoritative allocation of values. Authority stems from legitimacy, and legitimacy comes from elections. Thus, distortion of representativeness can be said to be the same as distortion of legitimacy.

This does not always need to be taken as negative. When political parties have more or less the same amount of public support, the distorted election system can give a certain party more power. Majority rule sometimes sounds unreasonable, but it can be effective.

The question is what comes next. A political party that won many seats despite having a smaller slice of the popular vote tends to overreact as if it had all of public opinion on its side. It believes that it won an absolute majority when it actually won only a relative majority. The party becomes like a company that manufactures the wrong product because it misjudged market demand. What would happen to such a company?

Stock prices or exchange rates can “overshoot” - plummet more than they should according to their actual value. This can happen in politics, too. A political party regards the areas where its members won as those where the entire public supports it, and it steers state affairs into a certain direction accordingly. It does not listen to other opinions and becomes arrogant. Eventually it gets punished in the next election. That is political overshooting. After the last election the GNP behaved liked this. It is time to see whether the DP will overreact or accept reality as it truly is.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Nam Yoon-ho
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