Symbiotic relationship neededWith the just-concluded sixth local elections, Korea’s local autonomy has come of age after its inception two decades ago. Now is the time for all local governments across the country to take the lead in meeting people’s demands beyond simply carrying out central government policies. Instead, a paradigm in which provincial governments serve as “colonies of central politics” is being consolidated.
The hottest issue in the June 4 elections was whether to punish the Park Geun-hye administration for its lethargic handling of the Sewol ferry disaster. Candidates were proxies in a war of national politics. As a result, primary concerns of the people - such as the local economy, education, welfare and environment - were not central issues this time around. Now that the elections are over, the only remaining question appears to be who among the winners will run for president in 2017. From small administrative units to large ones, and from candidates to voters, this local election was still held within the parameters of a fight between the ruling Saenuri Party and opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy from start to finish.
It is regrettable that the local autonomy system has failed to take root in our democracy. Our local autonomy still depends on the central government for fiscal and administrative support. It is even called “20 percent autonomy” because that is the share of taxes and administration vested locally. Fiscal independence of local governments, which was 63.5 percent in 1995, declined to 53.9 percent in 2008, 51.1 percent in 2013 and 44.8 percent this year. Among 244 basic administrative units nationwide, more than half - 124 - still have trouble appropriating labor costs on their own.
Such a sad reality stems from voters’ misunderstanding that if they choose their own administrative leaders and councils, autonomy will be achieved automatically. Their direct votes are necessary - but not sufficient - for successful local autonomy. Without the central government substantially delegating and distributing administrative authority and fiscal resources to local governments, “autonomy” does not work. Election winners must do their best to establish full local autonomy through symbiotic relationships with the government.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 6, Page 30