Since July last year, a reform panel of the ruling Grand National Party has been working on a plan to overhaul the way the party nominates candidates for parliamentary elections. Last month, the panel disclosed a draft scheme based on a U.S.-style primary system that picks candidates through votes by party members and citizens.
The open primary system, in fact, had been used by the GNP and other major political parties in the general elections in 2004. At the time, this bottom-up approach was hailed as an important milestone in party politics as it replaced the past practice of leaving candidate selection to the discretion of party bosses.
However, in the 2008 general elections, the GNP and other parties backtracked from the nomination reform. They entrusted the task of selecting candidates to a nomination screening committee consisting of 10 or so party members and outside experts. But these committees could not stop party bosses from intervening in the nomination process.
In the GNP’s case, the nomination committee faced a strong backlash as it fielded many candidates loyal to President Lee Myung-bak, while dropping figures from a rival faction, despite their strong chance of winning. They left the party to run independently, and many of them defeated GNP candidates and later joined the party again.
This fiasco led many young GNP lawmakers to call for reform for the 2012 elections. Reflecting their wishes, the party’s reform panel, led by Rep. Na Kyung-won, abandoned the 2008 formula and adopted a primary system that leaves little room for intervention by party bosses.
As expected, this scheme has met with a lukewarm response from the party’s leaders. For one thing, they are reluctant to give up their power to influence the nomination process. For another, they are preoccupied with what they view as a more important issue ― constitutional revision.
The main rationale for the GNP leaders’ bid to revise the basic law is that the president wields too much power. They argue that the excessive concentration of power in the hands of one man causes many problems and, therefore, needs to be corrected by introducing a new power-sharing arrangement.
This argument is hardly convincing. If the GNP leadership is truly interested in curbing the presidential power, they need to shift their attention from their hopeless project to revise the Constitution to a more practical and attainable task of reforming the nomination process.
In a system where a president can pick his party’s candidates for parliamentary seats, the lawmakers thus elected cannot act independently in the lawmaking process. In voting on major bills, they are expected to strictly follow the guidelines set by the party’s leadership. If they ignore the party line, they will risk being deprived of a chance to run for the next election. This way, the president secures control of the elected lawmakers and his party. If the governing party holds a majority in the National Assembly, the president’s dominance is extended to the legislature.
In contrast, if a candidate is chosen through an open competition, he can act more independently after election. This will enhance intra-party democracy and weaken strict party discipline. If lawmakers are allowed to vote more freely on major issues, confrontations between political parties can be eased. It will ultimately put the relationship between the executive and legislative branches on a more equal footing by activating the mechanism of checks and balances.
In this regard, nomination reform is the starting point of political reform. Hence we urge the GNP leadership to focus on this important project. As the main opposition Democratic Party is also seeking to adopt a primary system, the two parties will be able to jointly write a bill to institutionalize a new, democratic nomination system based on open competition and the participation of rank-and-file party members and citizens.