[Viewpoint] Put an end to vote-buying

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[Viewpoint] Put an end to vote-buying

“Who in politics can be free from envelopes stuffed with money?”

Politicians all show the same reactions toward the recent scandal about an attempt to buy votes at a party’s leadership election. It is probably true that no one is free from the practice.

We have a long and deeply rooted tradition of buying votes. The current political system cannot work without envelopes stuffed with cash.

Money is the ugly truth of the current political system. When we follow the money, we can expose the inferior political system.

Let’s see where the money is spent. The example will be the 3 million won ($2,600) that Representative Koh Seung-duk of the Grand National Party allegedly received from then-candidate for chairman Park Hee-tae in 2008.

In Korea, the money spent to appeal to voters is called the “actual expense.” It is the minimum amount of money used to mobilize delegates to the voting place.

Normally about 30 delegates are mobilized per district. Including the charter bus fee, two meals and snacks, the cost for a single delegate is about 100,000 won. Mobilizing 30 delegates, therefore, will cost at least 3 million won.

Additional expenses on top of the 3 million won can vary. If a candidate believes that the district surely backs him, the extra cost would be about 50,000 won per delegate.

So about 5 million won in total will be needed. If the district is an unstable voters’ region, it will cost more money for the candidate to buy votes.

If the district is clearly not supporting the candidate, there is no need for him to spend any money, not even the basic actual expense.

That, however, does not mean that the district’s delegates won’t receive any money. His rival will spend money on them.

The reason behind the envelopes stuffed with money is the political system of mobilizing the delegates. For a party chairmanship election, it is rare that delegates actually show up at the election venue to cast ballots by spending their own money.

It’s because Korea’s political parties are not “mass parties” but “cadre parties.” The evidence is the October Seoul mayoral by-election.

An independent candidate defeated the candidate of the largest ruling party, and Park Geun-hye, the long-time presidential frontrunner of the Grand National Party, is losing opinion polls to political rookie Ahn Cheol-soo.

Let’s see the supply of the money. According to Representative Koh, the envelope was stuffed with money and the name card of Park Hee-tae, current National Assembly speaker. Why did Park spread the money? The simple logic is that he wanted the chairman post of the party.

A party chairman has the power to move the party. The key of the power comes from candidate nomination. Politicians who seek nomination support the party chairman with loyalty and money. A party chairman can earn money and create a faction. A faction will generate power, and political influence will generate more money.

Based on that logic, Park’s case was very strange. Because there was no legislative election during his term as the GNP chairman from 2008 to 2010, he would have no opportunity to exercise the nomination power. There is a very little reason for Park to spread money to buy the post. Park consistently denied that he had any knowledge about the scandal.

The chairmanship election took place at the beginning of President Lee Myung-bak’s term, and the Blue House was the most attracted buyer of the party chairmanship.

By securing its influence over the ruling party, it probably wanted to control the National Assembly in order to heighten the effectiveness of the state affairs.

It is, therefore, possible to assume that the Blue House selected Park and made him the chairman. The buyer of the GNP chairmanship could have been the Blue House, and Park could have been just a proxy.

If that’s true, there is a high possibility that the money came from somewhere near the Blue House.

No matter who the source of the money is, the reason for the scandal from the perspective of the supplier is the desirable power of a party chairman.

The power is abnormally excessive and strong, thus it is fatally attractive. The key is the nomination because it is a remote control that moves the party’s lawmakers.

There will be no solution to eradicate the long tradition of vote-buying when we just look at the envelopes stuffed with money. The key to the problem is the incentive. When the incentive is removed, the problem will be resolved.

We should stop the need to mobilize delegates for a chairmanship election. We should abolish the power accompanying the chairmanship.

The clear solution to this is ending the central party system. The nomination right is the key to a party’s center, and it should be returned to the voters. The open primary system allows the voters, not the central party leadership, to decide the candidates.

The changes should follow the American example of political parties. The American political parties move inside Congress under the leadership of their floor leaders. There is no need for the central party outside Congress.

The central party system and the right to nominate candidates are the legacy of the Park Chung Hee era. After seizing the power with the May 16 military coup, Park and Kim Jong-pil created the Democratic Republican Party and established the powerful central leadership that accompanies the mobilization of delegates. It was probably effective at the time, and the party served as an axis of modernization of the country.

And yet, a half century has already passed, and the lifespan of the Park Chung Hee-style political system has expired. The Grand National Party of Park Geun-hye will only survive when its reform exceeds the political system of her father.

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Oh Byung-sang
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