Where’s the neutrality?President Moon Jae-in has made a decision that could question the political neutrality of the National Election Commission (NEC) ahead of the March 9 presidential election. He has refused to accept the resignation by standing commissioner Cho Hai-ju whose three-year term ends on Jan. 24.
A commissioner’s tenure is legally set at six years, but the term for a standing member who oversees the commission’s management is fixed at three years. Since the NEC Act was passed in 1999, all of the seven standing commissioners have left the office after their three-year term ended. The Blue House was looking for Cho’s successor until recently. Then all of a sudden, the presidential office decided to break the tradition to make a rare exception for Cho.
As a result, Cho will stay on the NEC as a standing commissioner. His appointment stirred controversy from the beginning because he had served in the camp of Moon running for presidency in 2017. But Moon went on with his appointment by bypassing the required confirmation hearing for ministerial level offices. The NEC has been questioned for neutrality ever since. The commission even disallowed a campaign slogan by civilian groups, which reminded voters of the reason behind the mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan in April last year.
In July last year, Cho submitted his resignation before his term expired. His move came under suspicion that he was trying to make room for another pro-government figure to replace him.
The Blue House said that the vacancy in the standing commissioner’s post would be filled by existing commissioners appointed by the president. The Blue House also said that a standing member of the commission had been elected by nine commissioners. But actually, a standing commissioner was named by the president and he or she had to go through even tougher screening procedure in confirmation hearings in the National Assembly.
The ruling Democratic Party (DP) opposes a candidate proposed by the opposition People Power Party (PPP) citing his career as a member of the PPP. The PPP points out that seven out of eight commissioners, including the standing commissioner, are pro-DP people.
President Moon promises to protect neutrality in the coming presidential election. But lawmakers from the DP are heading the Ministry of the Interior and Safety and the Ministry of Justice. The DP must not shake the NEC before the presidential election.