[Viewpoint] Procedures should be properPolitical science majors at Seoul National University congregated one spring in 1980 during a violent student uprising against the military regime. To choose the head of the student council, one candidate was chosen by the student activists and everyone else was asked to raise their hands to elect him. One older student who had returned to school after finishing his compulsory military service raised his voice in protest. “Are we not political science majors? What is the meaning of our studies if we disregard the basic democratic election procedure?” he shouted. The student, who later joined politics, was Kim Boo-kyum, now a senior member of the main opposition Democratic United Party. A famous campus speech-maker Kim’s bellow must have scared his younger peers in the lecture room.
Students had been ravenous for democracy after decades of authoritarian and military regimes. They were too intent and eager with their passion to hassle with procedures. Shim Jae-chul, executive member of the ruling Saenuri Party, and Rhyu Si-min, co-chair of the Unified Progressive Party, became SNU’s student body head and the head of the elite school’s student activity groups, respectively, because they were handpicked rather than elected. They were, nevertheless, uncomfortable that their titles had been endowed rather than won.
I revisited the memories of campus days after watching the unfolding debacle that has erupted within the opposition Unified Progressive Party. The mainstream faction of the party, the Gyeonggi Dongbu alliance, which descended from a pro-North Korea student activist group, is under attack from every side. They are the last descendants of the 1987 democracy crusaders. They have been trained to take and obey orders from unseen leadership even when they secretly know the command to be wrong.
The people are frustrated and annoyed by them because of a scandal over a rigged primary in March and they are suspicious of their affinity toward North Korea’s ideology and its regime. During the March primary to select proportional representatives, followers of the mainstream faction stole ballot boxes and used pseudonyms and proxies to increase votes for their candidates. Some members testified they were pressured to cast votes for a certain candidate. The election irregularities they committed would surprise even the country’s first President Syngman Rhee, who bent rules to get reelected for multiple terms. The party members were virtually robbed of their voting rights.
But there is no way to stop the unethically elected figures from becoming lawmakers. The election of proportional representatives is a party procedure and therefore remains untouched by the election law. The list of names the party recognizes for proportional representative seats cannot be replaced once it is submitted to the central election committee. Even if those individuals leave the party, they retain their legislative seats. The National Assembly can review their status to kick them out the legislature, but their wrongdoing does not fit into the review category. The law provides exclusivity to party procedures to respect voters’ opinion more than the judgment of the executive, judicial and legislative branches.
This loophole has been exposed by the UPP’s shenanigans. It should be closed. Political parties hold numerous elections to select posts. There must be a legal basis to prevent and punish irregularities.
The prosecution has launched an investigation into the fraud. If any of the elected legislators are found culpable of vote rigging and charged, they can lose their legislative seats. But the accused could claim they were being unfairly charged and victimized by the system. The prosecution interfered due to mounting public criticism, but should have, nevertheless, waited longer for the party to solve the problem first.
Secondly, the UPP’s main faction has lost favor with the public due to its suspicious affiliation with North Korea. Most leading members of the faction have in their younger days acted for North Korea. They still avoid directly answering questions about their ideology and North Korea.
Lawmakers serve to build houses for the people. They cannot ignore demands by the house owner on interior design claiming they have their own aesthetic ideas. It is as if the signed agreement gives them authority to do whatever they want with the house.
Unlike the obvious election misdeeds, their standing on North Korea has not been clarified. They cannot be charged with anything for their past activities. The Constitutional Court can disband the group once it finds the party undermining the fundamental order of democracy in its goal and activities. But the group has not done anything that violates the law.
At the end of the day, voters have the key. The public has learned that not all liberals are genuinely liberals. We should not be hasty in our action so as to send the liberals back underground. We could end up losing more than gaining.
*The author is chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin-kook