New era calls for new measures

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New era calls for new measures

Official campaigning for the Seoul mayoral by-election has finally drawn to an end, just days after the National Election Commission sent letters to the candidates and political parties over the weekend warning them not to stoop too low as rivalries boiled over.

But it cannot be said that the fearsome rivalry had not been anticipated, especially given the scale and significance of the election. The office of Seoul mayor is second in importance only to the presidency as it hands the office-holder the responsibility of overseeing affairs in the capital, which accounts for the lion’s share of the economy and population.

The by-election, which also serves as a litmus test for next year’s general and presidential elections, is also seeing the widespread use of online and cellphone-based social networking services. And as the first independent candidate representing Korea’s liberal camp squares up to his rival from the mainstream ruling party, the characters in the real-life drama assume similar dimensions to those in the biblical tale of David versus Goliath.

As the campaign entered its final stretch, however, the beast of dirty campaign tactics reared its ugly head, with much slandering and whistle-blowing ensuing. But election watchdog authorities only interfered by flashing yellow cards at the last minute. They should have imposed the rules of fair play at an earlier stage and made a point of drawing attention to, and cracking down on, any misconduct.

It is rare for the election commission’s head to send warning messages. The measure was last resorted to 22 years ago during a by-election for a representative post in Donghae, Gangwon. The by-election had been marred by illegal publicity pamphlets as well as corruption and bribery. The commission leveled charges against all of the candidates and the local election commissioner. They were all prosecuted and found guilty.

This time, however, the commission did not take such drastic steps. Rather, it advocated against the use of smear campaigns and for the focus to stay on platforms and policy. But is this realistic?

The commission should have drawn a clear line between what is acceptable and what is not and taken action if any of the players crossed the line. The commission must also keep up with new campaigning trends that use modern media and realign its guidelines for new media in a similar way.

It is what the modern age demands.
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