Endless double standardsThe National Election Commission (NEC) is facing questions about its neutrality ahead of the April 7 mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan. The NEC ruled that President Moon Jae-in’s comment about his “heart beating” to see Gadeok Island, the site for a new airport off Busan, did not breach election law. But the commission summoned a civilian — who had posted an ad in major dailies calling for unification in the opposition front to field a single candidate for the Seoul mayoral race — to see if he violated the election law.
In the ad published on March 19, the citizen urged Oh Se-hoon of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) and Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party to unite for a single candidacy. The civilian received a visit from NEC officials the following day without notice. The sudden raid over the weekend “felt intimidating,” he said. The NEC explained that its officials arrived without prior consent because they could not contact him over the phone.
The NEC claims the ad has breached the Election Law that bans publication of an ad naming a political party or a candidate in support, recommendation or disapproval. But the ad did not support a certain party or candidate. Yet it rushed to the workplace of the civilian over the weekend. The NEC’s action contrasts with the Korea Press Ethics Commission which did not find any fault with a rightist group’s ad in support of the acquittal of Jun Kwang-hoon, who was indicted for defamation and election law violation charges. The NEC’s neutrality has been challenged several times. It ignored the opposition camp’s claims that the purple banner on taxis in Seoul could suggest support for the DP. The PPP claimed partiality of the NEC in its video ad to promote voting on April 15 last year which initially had celebrities holding up pink roses but later was changed to a screen of black and white. Pink was the color of the former conservative United Future Party (UFP), now PPP. UFP candidates during last year’s election protested to the bias of the NEC which banned their use of the “ruining people’s livelihoods” campaign slogan but allowed the DP candidates’ banners on “elimination of past evils and pro-Japan forces.”
By-election turnout usually remains low at the 30 percent level, compared with general elections. The NEC has a duty to encourage voting. But it is only stoking neutrality questions and political apathy with its overreaction to an ad by the opposition camp.