Ministry violated its neutrality: Watchdog

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Ministry violated its neutrality: Watchdog

The country’s election watchdog yesterday ruled that the Ministry of Strategy and Finance violated its duty to remain politically neutral by releasing an analysis of how much money would be needed to fulfill the campaign pledges of more welfare by the ruling and opposition parties.

The National Election Commission concluded yesterday that the ministry violated Article 9 of the Public Official Election Act.

“A public official or a person who is required to maintain political neutrality [including an agency or organization] shall not exercise any unreasonable influence over an election or perform any act likely to have an effect on the election result,” the law says.

It is the first time the commission told a government office to remain neutral during an election.

“Election campaigns must be carried out by political parties freely and fairly, and their free competition must not be distorted by the government’s intervention,” the commission said. “That is the precise intention of Article 9. A government office has the duty to refrain from all acts that could influence the election.”

The commission also condemned the ministry for releasing its analysis at a sensitive time.

“The ministry selected certain campaign promises and underscored that the required budgets would be unreasonable only seven days before the election,” the commission said. “No matter what its reason was, it is seen as an act to distort the election outcome by exerting undue influence over the voters’ judgments.”

The commission said it has sent the ministry an official request to respect its political neutrality and demanded that no similar incident occur.

A joint task force of the Lee Myung-bak administration held a meeting Wednesday and reviewed the campaign pledges on welfare by the political parties. Vice Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon presided over the meeting, and the conclusions were released to the media.

After the meeting, Kim said the Saenuri Party and the Democratic United Party have presented a total of 266 welfare pledges. To implement them all, at least 268 trillion won ($237 billion), in addition to the existing welfare budget of 92.6 trillion won, would be required over the next five years, Kim said. He said the government wouldn’t have the financial ability to shoulder the burden.

Although the ministry claimed it had no political intentions, both the ruling and opposition parties immediately cried foul.

The liberal opposition DUP, which has made the most promises to expand welfare, issued a statement Wednesday condemning the ministry for trying to influence the election. The DUP said it and the National Election Commission had expressed concerns to the ministry before the review, but the ministry went ahead regardless.

After the commission’s ruling, the DUP issued another statement yesterday accusing the Lee administration of working as campaign headquarters for the Saenuri Party. “The DUP will take stern measures against the government’s systemic intervention in the election,” the party said.

The conservative ruling party also expressed displeasure, saying the ministry has never asked it for information on how it planned to finance its welfare pledges. “The ministry just announced its review without having specific knowledge of our promises,” Saenuri spokeswoman Cho Yoon-sun said yesterday.

The ministry issued a statement saying it will respect the commission’s decision. “The ministry tried its best to respect neutrality by excluding an analysis of each political party’s pledges,” said ministry spokesman Park Chun-seob. “It is regretful to see the commission’s conclusion, but we will respect the decision.”


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

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