Features | Politics | East Asia

Constitutional and Electoral Reform in South Korea

Despite broad consensus about the need, parties bicker over the rules.

Constitutional and Electoral Reform in South Korea
Credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

As South Korea’s parliamentary elections, due to be held next April, draw closer, the politics in Yeoido – the small island in Seoul on which the National Assembly is located – grow ever more intense. This time, though, the fight is over the rules of the game.

South Korea attained democracy in 1987 by means of a grand compromise between the military dictatorship and democratic forces. The resulting system however, has since been assailed across the ideological spectrum for its multiple weaknesses, which includes an over powerful “imperial” presidency and an unrepresentative legislature. These two issues have been central to the recent debate in Seoul’s political circles over constitutional and electoral reform, the need for which few have questioned, though divergent interests as usual compromise the likelihood that a consensus will be reached over the direction.

Constitutional Reform

Revising the constitution has been a perennial subject for Korean politicians but especially for presidential aspirants, who conveniently raise the issue during elections but drop it once they have won office. The reason behind this intentional amnesia is the allure of the presidency, which far outstrips the authority of the cabinet or legislature, leading to tendencies to exercise power in a discretionary fashion. President Park Geun-hye could not resist the temptation: In both the 2007 and 2012 elections she endorsed revision, yet only last year she retracted, calling the debates over reform a “black hole” for the ailing economy.

Notwithstanding the president’s change of heart, key members of Park’s administration and faction have lately expressed enthusiasm for constitutional reform as the end of Park’s mandate draws nearer. Minister of Strategy and Finance, and close advisor to Park, Choi Kyung-hwan announced early this month that the current political system lacked continuity since key policies are prone to reversal with every new administration in the Blue House, implicitly favoring revision. More notably, Hong Mun-jong – a central figure among the Park loyalists and a former Saenuri secretary-general – stated earlier this month that constitutional reform must be carried out after the 20th legislative elections next April. As an alternative to the current system he proposed semi-presidentialism, in which the president and prime minister would be responsible for foreign and domestic policies respectively and share executive power.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

According to the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), this statement reveals a tacit plan on the part of the Park faction to maintain control of the country long after the end of Park’s term. If this were true, Saenuri would have to win at least two thirds of the seats in the elections in order to pass a constitutional revision through the National Assembly. A nationwide referendum would then have to be called in accordance with current laws for any revision to be legitimate. Given South Korea’s rigidly polarized electoral politics, the likelihood of such a landslide is low; even in 2008, their greatest victory since democratization, the conservatives only gained 153 seats, far from the 210 necessary to reform the constitution.

Nonetheless, opposition suspicions are not without substance. Many among Korea’s right wing admire the one-party dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Japan, which has ruled almost uninterruptedly for nearly 60 years, despite intermittent setbacks. The LDP’s peculiar intraparty politics empowers leaders of its various factions, whose influence over the cabinet may at times override even that of the prime minister. Since Park’s birthright as the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee has proven to be a foolproof electoral boon, the goal is to indefinitely fuse her image with that of the party to ensure a long-term grip on power.

A Numbers Game

However controversial constitutional reform may be, the more serious challenge to Korea’s democratic consolidation is the extreme malapportionment of its single-member districts, which reduces the representativeness of lawmakers. Rapid urbanization and aging has created an electoral landscape in which votes from rural constituencies outweigh those of urban areas since the latter often has much larger populations. This distortion reached such an extreme that some urban districts have had nearly four times the population of their smallest rural counterparts.

Despite its grave importance, the issue has largely failed to attract public interest partly due to the lack of enthusiasm both parties have shown towards its resolution. In October last year, the constitutional court ruled that the population ratio between the smallest to largest districts be raised to 1:2 to better match the current population distribution. This has prompted a visceral debate in the National Assembly, in which 246 out of the 300 seats are elected on a first-past-the-post basis from single-member districts. Rural districts which do not meet the minimum population requirements will have to be merged while new urban seats will need to be created for the growing satellite regions in the capital metropolitan area, which is home to over half the national population. Naturally those whose seats are under threat of merger have challenged the decision and their party leadership, putting bipartisan negotiations over redistricting and reform at an impasse.

Underlying this inaction is a conflict of interest; the current system fosters two-party dominance and gives an advantage to the incumbents that have governed intraparty politics since democratization. Of the two parties however, Saenuri has been the more vocal opponent of electoral reform, since it threatens the conservatives’ structural dominance over the legislature.

Korea’s electoral landscape is characterized by a powerful regional cleavage that often transcends economic or policy-based interests. For a number of historic reasons both new and old, a partisan split occurs across a geographic east-west axis, with the southeastern Gyeongsang and southwestern Jeolla provinces supporting Saenuri and NPAD respectively. Yet with Gyeongsang’s much larger population and industrial clout, Saenuri holds more of these “guaranteed” constituencies at around 70 seats. To match these numbers the opposition needs to win a significant majority in the highly competitive capital metropolitan area, where candidates have been elected with margins under five hundred votes. For the same reasons, however, some incumbent politicians in the NPAD whose seats are in Jeolla do not favor reform due to the fear their districts will be merged to correspond to contemporary demographic standards.

Given the difficulty of adjusting these constituencies to suit both diverse political interests and standards of representativeness, various conflicting alternative proposals have been raised to rectify the imbalance. The NPAD’s leader Moon Jae-in and the leftist Justice Party has advocated expanding proportional representation (PR) seats in the National Assembly, which stands at a mere 54 seats at present. Such a move however, has been blocked by the cap of the total number of seats set at 300 as well as opposition from Saenuri, who lost the PR vote in the last legislative elections despite winning more seats in total due to their regional advantage. The ruling party has instead insisted that the PR bloc be reduced to make room for creation of new single-member districts where the population has exceeded the minimum threshold. In opposition, NPAD proposed the creation of multi-member PR districts similar to that in the Japanese Diet, since this would also increase the likelihood of candidates winning seats in ‘difficult’ regions.

If the parties do not reach an agreement in time, it is likely that a fairly high degree of gerrymandering will ensue to certify that the court’s ruling is obeyed without inflaming intraparty dissent. This may be a quick fix to the backroom arm wrangling, but this inability to achieve compromise on the rules of political contestation attests to the increasing alienation of voter interests from Yeoido politics as well as the general fragility of Korean democracy.