A misrepresented democracy

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A misrepresented democracy

People are all different, yet at the same time they are all the same. A community of different and similar people brims with a multitude of problems. Studies like philosophy, humanities, theories, system and policies all pursue solutions to these problems.

Our society is too inundated with difficult problems. Because of the rapid pace in evolution and progress, individual lives are more exhausting. Lives are particularly hard for the ordinary, working-class and salt-of-the-earth folks. We should stop and think why society has not repaired its particular collective survival means despite the incongruity between the national economic, technology and civilization progress and individual lives.

In a democracy, people dominate themselves. We select representatives and organize the government to serve the different-yet-similar us. Since the direct presidential election was introduced in 1987 in Korea, many leaders and governments have taken office due to our voting, but the problems in our lives have not improved. Have all the leaders and governments been so bad and incompetent? The wisdom of mankind is too short. Which is why we must refer to the universal global trend from experiments of civilizations over the centuries. Democracy is no exception.

I argued for increases in lawmakers and proportional representatives, scrapping the top-down nomination system in political parties, a cut in lawmakers’ expenses and other privileges by half, a year-around National Assembly session, a run-off vote in the presidential election system, expansion of female share in proportional representation, lowering of the voting age limit to 18, and constitutional reform by offering various international cases and comparisons for one reason. All our problems we have today are by-products of Korean-style democracy. Some of them are the top agenda for imperative reform of our society.

What we will look into today also relates to democracy. Our representative and legislative electoral system is neither an equal nor democratic one based on the one-voter-one-vote system. And it goes against the fundamental principles of the Constitution and democracy. The demographic gap in the largest and smallest constituencies is as wide as 2.96 times - 103,619 voters versus 306,624 - which means a vote by a particular individual can carry triple or one-third of the weight in an election.

As a result, constituency votes generate unfair outcomes in elections. The demographic gaps within constituencies in other democratic societies are sharply lower than ours: 1.2 to 2.3 times in Britain, 1.22 times in the United States, 2 times in Germany, and 2.3 times in Japan. Our Constitutional Court judged that an election outcome would be unconstitutional if the demographic gap in constituencies goes beyond 3 to 1, but recommends a 2 to 1 ratio as desirable. In order to ensure democratic and equal elections, such disparity must be solved.

Our representative and legislative structure remains disproportional also due to an excessive stretch in representation. Since the multiple party system was allowed from the 1990s, the conservative party (now the ruling Saenuri Party) on average won 50 percent of votes from North and South Gyeongsang, a traditional home of the conservatives. But the party won 82 percent of the National Assembly seats allotted to the area. The remaining 32 percent entirely came from disproportional representation and abuse of power that has no relationship to public support.

In the meantime, the opposition Democratic Party won an average vote of 62 percent from the Jeolla region, home turf of the liberals, and yet the party won 87 percent of the seats allotted to the region. The extra seats came from a distorted system, not from voters. Regional dominance would not have been possible if the electoral system had been true to voting and election principles.

The electoral and election systems must be revamped in the direction of upholding the basic principles of democracy. The ratio of ballots voters cast should be identical or near to the representation in the assembly. If these principles had been enforced, our representation, legislative organization and party system would have been entirely different from what we have today. If the legislative role is expanded to the average standards of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and advanced welfare societies, our representative democracy could move closer to solving our social problems.

Moreover, the single-term, five-year presidential system - where a president wields enormous power over five years and leaves office without any accountability when the term ends - must be revised first in order for other reforms to take effect. All the reform work on politics, parties, elections, legislative, prosecution and judiciary areas were limited because the porous presidential system remained intact. We lived with our problems and failed to solve them not because we weren’t aware of them, but because we have not acted out to make changes.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

* The author is a professor of Yonsei University and visiting professor of Free University of Berlin.

by Park Myung-rim
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