South Korea – Reforming Party Nomination

The impending June 4th local elections for the 17 cities and provinces in South Korea have refocused attention onto the political parties, particularly the nomination process. Party nomination – widely considered to perpetuate nepotism and corruption – was one of the few subjects over which the presidential candidates of the 2012 elections expressed explicit agreement. In particular, then-candidates Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in acknowledged that the closed-door process was a primary source of public disapprobation and distrust and formulated a bipartisan pledge to reform the party nomination process towards greater transparency and accountability. Given the significance of party nomination to candidate selection, including presidential candidates, and the public distrust of political parties, it pays to look at the efforts towards the reform of the party nomination process.

The bipartisan pledge explicitly banned the party nomination practice so that those running for local elections will hold no party affiliation. Following elections, a special interparty parliamentary reform committee was constituted and tasked with recommending political reforms, including the pursuit of the ban. However, time has eroded the determination and resolve of 2012, and the committee’s efforts to push reforms ahead have stalled. In particular, the Saenuri Party is calling for an open primary nomination rather than a complete ban of the party nomination practice, citing the concern that unvetted candidates may be problematic due to their lack of experience or qualification, without the option or prospect of reigning in problems through the party nomination process. Officially, the Saenuri Party is punting on the issue of the ban, referring back to the stalemated special parliamentary reform committee for the final decision. For the impending June 2014 elections, the ruling party has adopted a system that requires candidates be selected by an “electoral college” of each constituency, with the party retaining the right to replace the candidate selected if deemed uncompetitive. Opposition parties are accusing the ruling Saenuri Party of resisting the ban on party nomination and President Park of backtracking on an election pledge.

On its end, the main opposition party, the Democratic Party had announced a package of reforms for the party nomination process that similarly opened up the nomination process to public participation but does not ban party nomination. The reforms had included banning candidacies of those with corruption charges and expelling party members involved with party-nomination bribery. This has since changed with the announcement of the opposition coalition bloc with independent Representative and former presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo.

Former presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo’s much anticipated party, the New Party, was the only party to hold fast to the ban on party nominations. Ahn is a favorite among independents and while his party was likely to draw some support away from both major parties, it was considered a primary electoral challenge to the support for the opposition Democratic Party. The coalition between Ahn and the opposition Democratic Party has changed the political landscape, and one of the foremost changes announced is the ban on parties’ nomination of candidates for lower-level administration chiefs and councilors.

The announcement of the opposition bloc seems to have caught the ruling Saenuri party offguard. This may mean an acceleration of reforms with the party’s nomination efforts, given that the issue ignites considerable public disapproval.

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