Debate brewing in Saenuri over open primary contest

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Apr 23, 2012 - 20:48
  • Updated : Apr 23, 2012 - 20:49
A debate is brewing in the ruling Saenuri Party over its presidential nomination rules, as underdog candidates call for an open primary contest in hopes of challenging party chief and frontrunner Park Geun-hye.

Gyeonggi Province Gov. Kim Moon-soo, who declared his presidential candidacy Sunday, first floated the idea, claiming that the party should invite ordinary voters ― regardless of their political party affiliation ― to select who should represent the conservative party at the polls in December.

“The current nomination process, which is 50 percent decided by party delegates and members and another 30 percent by a group of citizens recruited by the party, has its limits in reflecting voter sentiment as it is,” Kim said on a radio program Tuesday.

“A full-open primary is the best way to find out who, among the candidates, has the favor of the electorate.” 
An applicant submits his documents to register his candidacy for the December presidential election at the National Election Commission’s building in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, on Monday as the agency began receiving preliminary candidate registrations. (Yonhap News)

The two-term governor claimed that the party’s current primary system will do little more than endorse Park, who has a tight grip on the party, and thus fail to attract voter interest.

According to the party rules, a presidential candidates is elected by a mixture of a voting by its electoral college and preliminary opinion polls, the former weighted for 80 percent of the total result and the latter 20 percent. The electoral college is to consist of party delegates, rank-and-file members and ordinary citizens in a 2:3:3 ratio.

This means that the whole process is 50 percent decided by party members.

Political analysts said an open primary is virtually the only hope for Kim and other Saenuri underdogs to realize a dramatic come-from-behind victory against Park.

Park, the eldest daughter of former military strongman Park Chung-hee, is the runaway frontrunner in the Saenuri race to succeed President Lee Myung-bak, who must step down after one five-year term. While Kim and other presidential candidates of the party don’t even make a blip in public polls, she enjoys popularity of more than 40 percent.

The Gyeonggi governor plans to issue a statement calling for the open primary, together with other presidential hopefuls ― Reps. Chung Dong-young and Lee Jae-oh. Reps. Chung and Lee are said to be mulling the timing to announce their presidential bid.

Park’s camp, however, appears reluctant to change the rules.

They cite a tactical voting as a key concern, in which a supporter of the opposite party could strategically vote for the weaker candidate to boost the prospect for his or her party.

In a 2007 presidential primary conducted in accordance with the current rules, Park was defeated by incumbent President Lee by a narrow margin, although she won the on-the-scene vote by party members and citizens. Lee had a large lead in opinion polls.

The open primary system, common in the U.S., has been experimented with by the liberals in Korea.

In 2002, then ruling Millennium Democratic Party, a precursor of the main opposition Democratic United Party, adopted a semi-open primary system with its electoral college, which consisted of half party members and half ordinary citizens. The experiment resulted in one of most dramatic and enthusiastic political races in the nation’s history, making a little-known, self-taught lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun, the party’s presidential candidate. Roh was eventually elected president.

The DUP is likely to hold open primaries to select its presidential candidate again, although the rules are yet to be finalized.

By Lee Sun-young  (