300-seat Assembly faces backlash from public

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300-seat Assembly faces backlash from public

The National Assembly’s last-minute decision to increase the number of lawmakers to 300 from 299 faced a stiff backlash yesterday, with civic groups saying the politicians were playing power games while ignoring issues that matter to the public.

With the April 11 general election approaching fast, the legislature yesterday evening approved a new constituency map. After the ruling and opposition parties repeatedly failed to strike a deal over the past months, the National Election Commission made a proposal last week that the number of seats in the National Assembly would be increased to 300, but only for the upcoming elections.

With the clock ticking, the Special Committee on Political Reform passed it Tuesday morning, and the plan was approved at a plenary session in the evening.

Under the revised election law, a new constituency will be created in Sejong City, the mini capital in South Chungcheong. Two constituencies will be added to Paju in Gyeonggi and Wonju in Gangwon, while two seats will be cut from South Gyeongsang and South Jeolla.

With the change, the number of elected lawmakers was increased to 246 from 245, while the number of proportional representatives will remain at 54.

The lawmakers appeared to be aware that they would face a backlash. The plan to add one more seat was barely approved, with 52.9 percent of the vote. Of the 174 lawmakers who cast votes, only 92 supported it, while 39 opposed and 43 abstained.

In a cabinet meeting yesterday, President Lee Myung-bak reacted negatively to the change.

“Lee expressed concerns about increasing the seats in the legislature,” a senior Blue House official said. “Lee wanted the National Assembly to take the initiative and set an example, but he worried that it was going toward a different direction from the people’s expectations.”

Lee, however, did not veto the change.

Another Blue House official said the cabinet was forced to approve the increase because vetoing it would throw the election off schedule.

Under the election law, adjusting the constituency map should have been completed six months before the election, but the ruling and opposition parties failed to meet the deadline because none wanted to give up any electoral strongholds.

Under the nation’s Constitution, the number of lawmakers is decided by the National Assembly Act and should be more than 200. The constitutional National Assembly, established in 1948, started with 200 seats, and the number grew steadily to reach 299 in 1988, with a brief exception of a 175-seat chamber in 1963 in the aftermath of the May 16 military coup led by Park Chung Hee.

Before the 2000 legislative elections, lawmakers agreed to a reduction in line with the massive restructuring efforts across the country to cope with the Asian economic crisis, reducing the seats to 273. But the National Assembly quickly rebounded to 299 seats in 2003 after a single term, and the latest change will create the largest legislature in the country’s history.

According to the National Assembly Secretariat and the National Election Commission, about 3.2 billion won ($2.8 million) in tax money is spent on each lawmaker during his or her four-year term. The expenses include the lawmaker’s salary and salaries for aides.

Former lawmakers also receive a 1.2 million won monthly benefit for the rest of their lives. Former lawmakers’ families and children receive other benefits, including tuition.

According to official statistics, a lawmaker in Korea represents an average of 162,000 constituents, far smaller than in other countries. In the United States, a lawmaker represents 700,000 people, and a Japanese lawmaker represents 260,000 constituents.

Citizens United for Better Society, a conservative civic group, held a rally yesterday in front of the National Assembly saying lawmakers were only paying attention to their own interests while ignoring those of the people.

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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