The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Time to make sacrifices

By Yu Kun-ha

Published : Jan. 5, 2012 - 18:07

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Tensions are mounting in the ruling Grand National Party as the party’s emergency leadership council has started to discuss the highly sensitive issue of overhauling the process to pick candidates for parliamentary elections.

Changing the nomination process is at the top of the reform agenda pushed by the emergency council, which was launched last month with the mandate to thoroughly reinvent the embattled party before the April general election.

The task is basically about establishing a fair, transparent and democratic process to select qualified candidates for parliamentary seats. This hardly sounds like a difficult job as the ruling party claims to be a full-fledged democratic party.

In reality, the task is not as easy as it may seem. For one thing, the GNP ― and for that matter its rival parties ― still suffers from a democratic deficit. The party, like its rivals, has a long tradition of allowing its bosses to exercise their clout on candidate selection.

The GNP and other parties deviated from this tradition in the 2004 parliamentary election. At the time, they introduced an open primary system, allowing party members and citizens to select candidates directly through voting.

This democratic method, however, failed to take root. The parties all reverted to the old system in the 2008 general election. The GNP leadership was particularly criticized for its undemocratic practice of favoring candidates loyal to President Lee Myung-bak at the expense of those close to Rep. Park Geun-hye, who competed against him for the party’s presidential ticket.

Yet the absence of a democratic tradition is not the main factor that makes nomination reform especially difficult for the ruling party. It can institute a fair and transparent process if its leadership is committed to democratic principles.

On this point, the current leadership can be trusted. Rep. Park, who now leads the emergency council, is the person who implemented the 2004 reform. Recently, she has repeatedly pledged to introduce a perfectly democratic and flawless system.

But nomination reform is a tough task for the GNP, primarily because it involves the need to undertake a massive housecleaning as voter dissatisfaction with its legislators is high.

To project a fresh image in the April election, the party needs, among other things, to field new, charming candidates in place of incumbent lawmakers who have lost voter confidence.

To facilitate a reshuffle, the party’s think tank has suggested a set of selection criteria. One rule calls for excluding incumbent legislators from candidacy if their approval ratings in their own districts are lower than the party’s by more than 5 percentage points.

This proposal shocked many lawmakers, especially those from the party’s strongholds, which include Daegu City, North Gyeongsang Province and the Gangnam districts of southern Seoul.

In these bastions, the party enjoys high popularity. Hence few GNP lawmakers based in these areas excel the party in terms of approval rating. This means most incumbents hailing from these regions could be eliminated from the screening process.

Ironically, most lawmakers from these GNP citadels are loyal to Park. Some members of her faction who have served multiple terms resignedly expressed their willingness to follow whatever rules are implemented by the emergency council.

Yet many resisted the proposed rule, saying it would be unfair if it is applied without taking into consideration the unique situation of each district.

The resistance of these lawmakers is natural. Yet it poses a severe test for Park. The success or failure of her efforts to reshape the party depends to a large extent on her ability to have her followers swallow the bitter pills prescribed by the emergency council.

If she can persuade these lawmakers to give up candidacy voluntarily, she would be able to wield the ax against lawmakers from other parts of the nation who need to be removed to improve the party’s image. Otherwise, the party will fall into chaos.

In a radio address on Tuesday, Park stressed the need for GNP legislators to give up their vested interests. She noted that the new candidate selection formula would not take into account any of the vested rights claimed by incumbent lawmakers.

Granted, it is not easy for incumbent lawmakers to give up candidacy, especially where the party’s nomination is tantamount to reelection. Yet GNP lawmakers who are loyal to Park need to set an example to help her reinvent the party and reclaim public confidence.