[Viewpoint] On vigilance and politicians

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[Viewpoint] On vigilance and politicians

South Korean politicians have a talent for distorting the truth whenever they get near it. Every social issue becomes a new excuse for political bickering. Once it moves to the political stage, it becomes foggy as to whom and what is right or wrong or good or bad.

That is certainly the case with the recent travails of the opposition Unified Progressive Party. It was evident what was wrong at the start. Both the conservatives and legislators were of one voice in condemning the hanky panky committed by its members in the process of selecting candidates for to be proportional representatives to the National Assembly. But with the national conventions and presidential race coming up, black and white has turned into a lot of white noise.

We need to be cool-headed and dissect the issues one by one. First of all, once elected, a legislator cannot be overthrown. Some suggest the judiciary nullify the lawmaker status of Reps. Lee Seok-gi and Kim Jae-yeon. But legislators are elected by the people and cannot be tossed out by a government-appointed bench.

Legislators are by no means beyond the law. If they violate the public office election law, they must be held accountable. But the application of legal remedies must be prudent. No established power is authorized to bend the law to undermine the voters’ choices. Laws should be fixed if the current arrangements are flawed.

The current public office election law nowhere stipulates punitive actions for wrongdoings in party elections to select proportional representative nominees. There is one that prohibits bribes or promises of favor in return for votes. But legal remedies must take into account reality. Many politicians have paid to buy votes or candidacies in the past. The current law was made when parties did not conduct primaries to elect candidates for proportional representatives. On the other hand, party primaries are not entirely internal matters as highest-ranking nominees automatically become legislators in proportion to the legislative seats the party wins in an election.

Secondly, the issue should be whipped up to suit the coming presidential campaign. The essence of the case was election irregularities, but it sprawled into different realms because of ideologies that were exposed. In the past, opposition party conventions often turned violent due to the intrusion of armed thugs. They staged high-speed races on the streets to get to the National Election Committee with the proportional representatives’ list before it got stolen, as once the list arrives at the Committee, there is no turning back. The law also ensures party sovereignty in naming proportional representatives.

The problem may not have ballooned into such a controversy if Lee and Kim didn’t have records of past activities associated with North Korea. The conservatives elevated the issue into an ideological contest, upsetting all other priorities and issues ahead of the year-end presidential election.

As result, efforts to fix legal loopholes to enhance transparency in party primaries and internal elections could now be jeopardized. Now that there’s a political stalemate due to a sudden ideological debate, a bipartisan addressing of the issue can hardly be expected.

The political exploitation of the ideological issue has also stolen a good chance to raise awareness about individuals and groups who continue to champion North Korea’s ideology. The opposition, which at the beginning tried to distance itself from the pro-North Korean group, returned to its defense to guard its coalition when cornered by the ruling party’s all-out attack on the minor opposition party. The pro-North Korean forces have used the fireworks to adopt a low profile until the storm dies down. But we must seriously debate how much we can tolerate pro-North Korean forces in our mainstream politics. We must be able to set clear guideline in differentiating the progressive liberals from pro-North Korean dissidents.

At the end of the day, the decision is up to the public. Some want to use the National Assembly law on qualifications to expel Lee and Kim. But the law defines the qualifications of a legislator as one who has been elected through just procedure, does not occupy another jobs, and is eligible to run for public office. No legislator can kick out peers elected by voters. They are rightly qualified to represent in the National Assembly unless they violate the public office election law. A legislator cannot be disqualified because of ideological conviction.

This only underscores the importance of the choices voters make. Once ballots are cast, there is no turning back. Voters must remain vigilant. Politicians must be honest to help the public make its judgments. Pleading for votes without clearly stating whether he or she upholds a free democracy or, on the other hand, North Korea’s juche ideology is deceitful. So far, those suspected of pro-North Korean beliefs are only a few. They must be closely watched so more do not proliferate quietly amidst the ideological brawling of mainstream politicians.

*The author is chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin-kook
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