Ruling party works to rally supporters

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Ruling party works to rally supporters

Political aspirants in the ruling party have begun a heated competition to recruit new members after its chairman vowed to field candidates for the next legislative elections in an open primary.

Saenuri leader Kim Moo-sung has advocated the open primary system since he took over the chairmanship last year, a stance he reaffirmed on July 13, when he issued a speech to mark the anniversary of his tenure. Since then, politicians aspiring to run in April’s legislative elections have fiercely recruited supporters to win Saenuri tickets.

In an open primary, eligible voters who are not members of a political party may cast ballots, though it is rare for non-members to actually participate. To win a candidacy through an open primary, recruited supporters who are also party members are considered the crucial link. To hold a completely open primary, the Saenuri Party proposed to the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) that it hold its primary on the same day to prevent the possibility that opposition supporters would participate in the ruling party’s primary and vote for weaker candidates.

The NPAD said it would consider the proposal, but has yet to make a decision. If the NPAD rejects the plan, the Saenuri may hold a primary with its own members. In this case, having a large number of members as supporters becomes even more critical for a candidate to win the nomination.

In Andong, North Gyeongsang, Saenuri Rep. Kim Gwang-lim and former lawmakers Kwon Oh-eul and Kwon Taeg-ky have been battling to recruit supporters. The three started competing in June to recruit new members and over the past month, they have each recruited more than 2,000 new members. Nearly 7,000 Andong residents have registered as new members of the Saenuri Party - nearly 10 percent of the city’s eligible 78,603 voters in the 2012 general elections.

“They say that anyone who walks around the city of Andong is a Saenuri member,” joked Kwon Taeg-ky.

According to sources inside the ruling party, recruiting at least 1,000 members in the capital region and at least 2,000 in the Gyeongsang region are considered mandatory for a run in the primary. And the competition is expected to peak at the end of this month, according to the party’s nomination schedule. Under existing primary rules, a member who has paid membership fees for more than six months is eligible to vote in the primary. The monthly fee is 2,000 won ($1.73).

Those who join the Saenuri Party by the end of this month and pay the fee for six months will become responsible members at the end of Jan. 2016. The voter registry for the primary will be finalized at the end of February, while the primary is expected to take place at the end of March in order to field candidates for the general elections on April 13.

“This month, we have received more than 200 applications every day,” said an official from the Seoul Metropolitan City Chapter.

Recruitment is never easy, however, though many have proven successful. Rep. Lee Jong-koo, former lawmaker representing Seoul’s Gangnam A District, has already recruited 3,000 new members.

“I spent all my time and energy recruiting new members over two months starting in mid-May,” he said, adding that he rounded up fellow alumni from the district’s Kyunggi High School to recruit new supporters.

But Lee faced a fierce competition from Rep. Shim Yoon-joe, a sitting lawmaker of the district who recently started a campaign to recruit 4,000 new members.

To become a paid member of the Saenuri Party, registering one’s resident identification number and bank account number is mandatory.

“My supporters often tell me where and when I can meet potential new members,” said one contender in Seoul. “That’s the top priority and I try to persuade them, but they often hesitate when asked for that information.”

Politicians without networks use other strategies. Some collect mobile phone numbers from cars parked at apartment complexes in their potential districts to recruit supporters by phone.

“Some walk around the apartment complexes and survey which newspapers the residents subscribe to in order to determine their political inclinations,” said a Saenuri official. “And then they try door-to-door recruitment based on that information.”

However, as the competition heats up, concerns have grown that supporters are being recruited through unlawful means, and the National Election Commission (NEC) has said election law violations will only increase when the ruling party holds an open primary.

A district in Chungcheong has four contenders, for example, who all accuse each other of promising to pay the membership fees for new members.

“My opponents are suspected of giving each new member 12,000 won, what amounts to a six-month membership fee, in return for the registration forms,” said one contender. “Political rookies, just like me, are all complaining that it’s so hard to win a nomination without money.”

In the Gyeongsang region, the traditional stronghold of the Saenuri Party, rumors have also begun to spread that registration forms for new members are traded at a premium. Paying another person’s membership fee is prohibited by election law, and violators can be subject to penalties - up to five years in prison or as much as a 10 million won fine.

BY NAMGUNG WOOK, JEONG JONG-MOON [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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