The Koreas

Can South Korea Enact Electoral Reform In Time?

The 2020 clock is ticking on crucial Korean electoral reforms.

By Kyle Pope and Adam Pepin-Hall for
Can South Korea Enact Electoral Reform In Time?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Dmthoth

In South Korea a determined push for much needed electoral reform has reached an impasse with the 2020 general election deadline looming. Hunger strikes, multiple revisions and countless rounds of negotiations have brought this perennial issue closer to the legislative line than ever before. But conservative opposition and conflicting party priorities stand in the way of what would be a real step forward for Korean democracy.

Electoral reform has long been a topic of debate, with presidents from both sides of the aisle raising the issue in the past. In reality, the responsibility lies with the legislature, not the executive, to negotiate and develop a modified electoral model that is politically viable and constitutionally sound. Until a joint four-party submission on March 14 this year however, no such piece of legislation had reached the desk of the Speaker of the National Assembly.

The submitted proposal outlines a vital expansion of proportional representation (PR), which would both restrain endemic regionalism and produce a National Assembly more reflective of the electorate. The bill must be placed on a legislative fast track soon to ensure the system is in place for the 2020 general election. This process requires a 60 percent supermajority in the National Assembly but looks likely to fail at this final hurdle.

The minor parties — the progressive Justice Party, the center-left Party for Democracy and Peace, and the center-right Bareunmirae Party — have been the driving force behind the current proposal. While the ruling liberal Democratic Party has lent conditional support, the opposition conservative Liberty Korea Party (LKP) have expressed resistance oscillating between nonparticipation and hostility.

With minor parties taking the initiative, the argument for electoral reform has also evolved. A past focus on overcoming regionalism shifted to combating the current system’s underrepresentation of minor parties.

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

The 1987 June Democratic Uprising led to the adoption of the current constitution, which mandates the use of proportional representation in filling a 200-member-minimum unicameral legislature. The number of National Assembly legislators was subsequently set at 300 and an electoral system that is a mix of first-past-the-post and proportional representation implemented. However only 15.6 percent of seats are decided by PR, the lowest ratio among states that use a mixed system.

Initially taking the form of an idiosyncratic single-ballot method, a 2001 Constitutional Court ruling forced a change to the current two-ballot system. The first ballot lists the local candidates for one of the 253 single-member districts that is decided on a first-past-the-post basis. The second ballot is a national-level vote for a party, distributing the remaining 47 seats proportionally and filled according to party lists.

Increasing the relatively low ratio of proportional seats is at the heart of the reform proposal. A February 2015 National Election Commission report calling for full proportional representation and a 30-seat increase provided the starting point for negotiations. This maximalist opening gambit met immediate resistance from sections of the Democratic Party and lacked wider public support. Eventually inter-party compromise produced a joint four-party piece of legislation that maintains the 300-seat total.

The negotiated proposal puts forward a more modest increase in PR, from 47 to 75 seats. This would mean a reduction in single-member district seats from 253 to 225. It also introduces the 2015 Election Commission report’s method for distributing seats but parties would only receive half of the additional proportional representation seats they would have under the original proposal. The current voting age of 19 would also be brought in line with the OECD standard of 18.

The proposal also assigns proportional representatives to one of six designated regions according to their party’s percentage of the vote in that region. This is to ensure proportional representation operates at not only the national but also the regional level. This prevents cases such as the 2012 general election where the Saenuri Party (now LKP) won 90 percent of seats in the conservative stronghold of Gyeongnam, Busan and Ulsan despite receiving just over 50 percent of votes.

This bill started to take shape in December 2018 with the hard-won formation of a special parliamentary committee for electoral reform spearheaded by the Justice Party’s Shim Sang-jung. The committee was the result of a 10-day hunger strike by the chairs of the Justice Party, Lee Jung-mi and Bareunmirae Party, Sohn Hak-kyu, which pushed LKP to join the other four parties in making a public pledge to engage with the issue.

Since the public pledge, LKP has sought to stall momentum with a counter-proposal of removing proportional representation altogether through a constitutional amendment which would completely change Korea’s system of government. They have also staged a walkout during the Justice Party floor leader’s parliamentary address and boycotted committee meetings.

A move to fast track the bill in order to have the system in place for the April 15, 2020 general election further hardened LKP defiance, with floor leader Na Kyung-won threatening mass resignation. The fast-track measure expedites the legislative process but requires a supermajority in the house.

The four-party consensus required for a supermajority is now in doubt with the Democratic Party attempting to attach additional legislation to the process. Specifically, a bill which would create a powerful independent investigative body has led to the conservative faction in Bareunmirae publicly rebelling against the party leadership. Objections stem from concerns that the investigative body would be vulnerable to government influence, and over the fast track’s bypassing of LKP.

This deadlock has brought the fast track to a halt with the press dubbing it a slow track, or a fat track. However, the Justice Party’s Shim has attempted to revive the stalled process by appealing to legislators’ sense of public duty and requested both the Democratic Party and Bareunmirae Party continue to reach a compromise and ensure this valuable opportunity is not missed.

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

It is important that a compromise is reached soon, as electoral reform would be a step forward for democratic consolidation and has the support of the public and four of the five parties. The proposed system more closely embodies the spirit of the constitution, combats endemic regionalism, and would reduce the number of unrepresented votes.

Most importantly, it would provide an opportunity for minor parties to hold a consistent and significant political presence in an increasingly pluralistic society. The 2016 general election exposed the current system’s failings, with the now defunct People’s Party receiving less than half the number of seats in parliament relative to their share of the national vote.

The noisy ideological polarization between the two dominant parties over the North Korea question and differing interpretations of history masks narrower differences on social and economic policy. South Korean party politics suffers from an excess focus on personality and a lack of cohesive and consistent policy platforms. The realization of these electoral reforms would produce a National Assembly more representative of the electorate and move politics towards more substantial policy-based debate.

Kyle Pope is Korea Policy Analyst at Future Risk.

Adam Pepin-Hall is a Korea watcher at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.