Proportional representative system assessed amid scandals

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Proportional representative system assessed amid scandals

An ambitious political experiment by liberal opposition parties to secure the youth vote by promising proportional representative seats to young politicians appears to have failed.

One year on, concerns over the system, which was specifically designed to bring younger politicians into the legislature, have arisen following controversies surrounding several liberal first-term lawmakers, who have come under fire for deviating from the party line and making brash comments.

The latest incident came last week, when Democratic Representative Jang Ha-na declared that she would not accept the results of last year’s “unlawful” presidential election and called for a presidential by-election.

She further demanded that President Park Geun-hye step down over accusations that the National Intelligence Service waged an online smear campaign ahead of the poll disparaging Democratic presidential candidate Moon Jae-in.

Jang’s comments follow a string of such incidents in recent years, and senior officials are now calling for the system to be modified. In a determined bid to gain a foothold among younger demographics, the ruling and opposition parties artificially allocated proportional representative candidacies to aspiring politicians before the 2012 general elections.

After a vetting process, the conservative Saenuri Party placed Kim Sang-min, 38 years old at the time, and Lee Jae-young, then 36, higher up on its list of proportional representative candidates, guaranteeing their elections.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties took a different route, with the liberals hosting internal primaries to select their candidates. In order to generate public interest, the Democratic Party held an open audition, modeled after the singing contest “Superstar K.”

A total of 389 people applied for four candidacies. The Democratic Party then selected two. In the end, Jang, 36, and Kim Kwang-jin, 32, won the audition process, becoming proportional lawmakers for the largest opposition Democratic Party.

The minority Unified Progressive Party also conducted a primary to find a young proportional lawmaker, selecting Kim Jae-yeon, 33.

On Monday, Representative Jang made an additional statement saying she stood by her previous comments from last week.

Democratic Party leaders attempted to alleviate the situation, arguing that her statements were strictly her personal opinions and not the party’s official stance, but it appeared the damage had been done.

Her counterpart, Representative Kim Kwang-jin, who also won a proportional representative seat via an audition, and 20 other first-term Democratic lawmakers subsequently issued a statement defending her. “Jang’s remarks reflect some public sentiment,” Kim acknowledged.

But Kim is also not without his share of controversy. Shortly after winning a proportional seat, it was revealed that he had posted sexually explicit messages on his Twitter account in 2011, which elicited strong condemnation from lawmakers. “I love slavery,” he said in one of his tweets. “Let’s undress. Bring handcuffs and a whip.”

He also faced criticism from conservatives in October last year after calling Gen. Paik Sun-yup - the oldest living Korean general from the 1950-53 Korean War, who is considered a hero at home and abroad - a traitor during the Assembly’s audit on the Ministry of National Defense.

Meanwhile, UPP Representative Kim Jae-yeon is facing allegations that her victory in the primary was rigged, and a series of trials regarding those accusations are currently ongoing.

She was also criticized for changing her story about her involvement in UPP Representative Lee Seok-ki’s alleged attempt to overthrow the government. Kim initially said she never attended a meeting of the Revolutionary Organization, a pro-Pyongyang underground group, to discuss a rebellion plot, but later changed her account, acknowledging that she was present.

“The Democratic Party selected a youngster who is no better than a university student association president as its proportional lawmaker,” Saenuri Party Representative Shim Jae-chul said in reference to Jang’s comments last week. “It’s just an excuse that her remark is not the party’s position.”

Lee Jun-han, a political science professor at the University of Incheon, had similar sentiments.

“When young politicians fail to represent the interests of the young voters and only speak regarding their own interests, the system of electing young proportional representatives fails to serve its purpose,” Lee said. “It actually damages the political activities of the young population.”

A DP official, who was part of the proportional representative selection process, acknowledged the need to modify the system.

“It is important to find and drop young political gamblers who just want to win the lottery,” he said. “We need a system that will pinpoint young politicians and educate them from the bottom up.”

BY LEE YOON-SEOK, SER MYO-JA [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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