[CON] It only leads to uncertainty* Is a runoff necessary?
Campaigners and voters alike were too preoccupied with the possibility of a candidate merger in the liberal camp to have a thorough debate and consider a vision for the incoming government even with the presidential election less than a month away. Experts are arguing for a runoff voting system, where in the case there is no winner by absolute majority in the first round, the two top candidates enter the next stage of voting. But critics say the two-round system would only add more political uncertainty. Here are two sides of the argument.
In 2008, Electoral Studies ran a feature on runoff methods in an election system. It defined the method as “an election which may require more than a single round of balloting. How many ballots will be required will depend on the results of the first (and subsequent) rounds and on the specific runoff rules.” In the event of no majority winner, the top two candidates are placed on the second ballot; the one who gains more votes between the two wins. The goal of the method is to produce a victor and enhance the elector’s legitimacy, representativeness and democratic authority.
But the result was the opposite according to the essay in the journal and arguments by political scientists like Sarah Birch. Cases of a majority-focused two-round system suggest that minority groups were excluded and vote results were often swayed by mainstream forces. Voters also often do not return for a second round of voting either because their favorite candidate was eliminated or they do not wish to go through the hassle of voting twice. The rank in the first round frequently changes in the subsequent round. In the worst case, turnout is lower in the final round and the second runner-up can end up as the winner. It has in fact become rare for the turnout in the second vote to increase and the rank to remain unchanged. A runoff can actually raise questions about the legitimacy of the elected power instead of strengthening it.
Proponents of the system argue that the two-round ballot encourages an alliance among candidates and allows voters more time to choose their preferred candidate. But the coalition can breed election irregularities or collusion to share power and seats. The plural party structure will be fractionalized by minority parties capitalizing on their voting rights. Various incidental factors can influence the election outcome and augment political uncertainties. When Ecuador lost the qualifying round for the World Cup football match in 1996 on the eve of the runoff presidential election, angry voters chose the left-leaning opposition contender over the ruling candidate.
Runoffs are deemed to work well in advanced democracies like France. But in France too, out of the nine runoff votes in presidential elections since 1958, the rank in the first and second round changed three times. It is hard to find the system in developed democracies nowadays. It is still sustained mostly in Latin American countries, former Soviet states and African nations that have adopted democracies since the 1990s.
Would the runoff system work in today’s Korea? It would have been plausible when the vote margin fell far short of 50 percent as with 36.6 percent for President Roh Tae-woo, 42 percent for President Kim Young-sam, and 40.3 percent for President Kim Dae-jung. But from 2000, the margin went up to 48.9 percent for President Roh Moo-hyun and 48.7 percent for President Lee Myung-bak. With the presidential election increasingly narrowing to a two-way race, this year’s margin is expected to be as slim as 49 percent versus 51 percent. There is no need to bring up an alternative vote to further confuse and disrupt the Korean electoral political system while it is even more questionable that the system can help strengthen the legitimacy or representativeness of the elected power. It is best that we seek political reforms to encourage more people to vote.
*The author is a political science professor at the University of Incheon.
By Lee Jun-han