Don’t end grassroots autonomy

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Don’t end grassroots autonomy


Kim Tae-il

There are two views on local autonomy, the power given to district and county councils. One is the argument that local autonomy is excessive. People contend that too much power was given to local autonomous bodies in comparison to their capabilities. Another is the argument that “local autonomy” is an empty concept and that local councils were not given true power.

The Saenuri Party’s argument for abolishing district and county councils seems to be based on the former. Representative Lee Hahn-koo, who promoted the reform of regional politics, said the councils should be abolished because of their corruption and incompetence. “Instead of checking the district head, district council members concentrate on their own interests,” Lee said. “To remove incompetent people, it is necessary integrate local councils.”

I want to ask Representative Lee if he really knows how much power a district council has to monitor a district head. A district council doesn’t even have the authority to appoint its own workers. How can it possibly oversee the district head?

Lee called local council members “incompetent,” but who nominated them? They were nominated by lawmakers.

In the end, Lee’s argument is a way of blaming the victims. It’s like an argument used by imperialists to justify colonization. How can he talk about the incompetence of local councils without giving them the proper authority? How can he talk about the qualifications of local council members when the lawmakers fail to nominate proper candidates?

The more appropriate solution to current problems is not abolishing the system but reinforcing district councils’ authority and ending the right of political parties to appoint nominees.

The government and the ruling party once contemplated a plan to abolish local councils while electing the heads of district and county administrations. After the plan was criticized for violating the Constitution, they attempted to appoint local autonomous government heads. The point was to root out grassroots autonomy.

They support their argument by saying that districts and counties do not mean much in metropolitan cities. They say lower-level local governments should be merged. But is that really true?

“Over the past century, many studies at home and abroad have confirmed that overseeing a metropolitan city by a single metropolitan government hinders democracy and lowers the efficiency of administrative services,” said Professor Ahn Seong-ho, honorary chairman of the Korean Association for Local Government Studies.

After the government scrapped the local autonomy of cities and counties in Jeju, people quickly called for the old system to be revived. That was an example of how smaller local governments can be more appropriate. Perhaps we need smaller units than the current district and county systems.

If the Saenuri Party has proposed scrapping the local council system, just to avoid following up on its promise to end the party control over nominating local candidates, the tactic is actually working. After Saenuri Chairman Hwang Woo-yea’s New Year’s press conference, the media are questioning whether the local council system should be ended. The debate on ending the nomination system is no longer an issue, and that is why the public dislikes the Saenuri argument.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of political science at Yeungnam University.

By Kim Tae-il
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