As the 2012 presidential election season in South Korea heats up a major dispute is brewing over the process by which the political parties will select their presidential candidates. Many of the less popular candidates have argued for opening up the candidate selection process to all voters in a thinly veiled attempt to improve their abysmal chances.
However, this proposal for an open primary process has been rejected by the leading candidates due to concerns of fraud and opportunistic voting by the opposition. But the validity of those concerns is ultimately irrelevant in deciding whether to have open primaries.
This is because nomination processes for presidential candidates function best when they are as democratic as possible within the confines of party membership. Presidential candidates, unlike candidates for lesser office, will face the entire electorate of a country and the nomination of a candidate whose views diverge significantly from the majority of the electorate engenders defeat at the ballot box.
This lesson can be seen clearly in the 2007 presidential elections when the Korean electorate overwhelmingly rejected the candidates from the political parties that had failed to recognize the country’s move back to the political middle in response to the overly left-leaning policies of the preceding governments of President Roh Moo-hyun and President Kim Dae-jung. The Korean electorate, even ignoring President Lee Myung-bak’s potential ethical quandaries, chose the candidate that most closely represented their widely held desire for economic expansion.
Similarly in the 2008 elections in the United States the Republican Party candidate was firmly rejected by the American electorate. The resounding defeat in that November of John McCain by Barack Obama was attributed in large part to McCain’s perceived disconnect with the American electorate over the Iraqi war and to McCain’s choice of a vice president running mate who held extreme right-wing views.
However, the unsuitability of open primaries for the presidential nomination does not hold true for nomination of candidates for legislative bodies and those calling for open presidential primaries have unintentionally hit upon a concept that would, in the proper context, improve the electorates’ participation in South Korean democracy and improve the South Korean economy.
Unfortunately the context in which an open primary provides such benefits is legislative elections, which, as anyone who follows South Korea politics knows, have just finished. Coincidentally in the recent elections one party attempted to use an intra-party primary process, however the result was catastrophic.
This unfortunate outcome was the result of poor planning and faulty execution which left the door open to both fraudulent computer-based voting and old-fashioned vote buying. Nonetheless the abandonment of promises for open primaries by the majority party and its continued adherence to traditional methods based on internal party polling or “strategic” choices, which are mere euphemisms for backroom deals, will ultimately be more damaging to South Korea’s democracy.
This damage occurs because candidates selected by party bosses, or through closed processes that favor elite interests, are more apt to pursue policies that benefit those elite interests regardless of the detriment to society as a whole. Conversely, recent studies have shown a strong positive correlation between the democratization of intra-party nomination processes and the overall economic affluence of a country.
In other words the use of more democratic methods by political parties to select candidates to run for legislative office improves the country’s economy. This occurs because candidates selected under an open primary system are more likely to pursue policies that encompass the interests of the greater number and thereby provide wider economic benefits for the entire populace.
In addition to economic and democratic benefits, the political parties of South Korea operate pursuant to specific provisions of the Korean constitution which state that the activities, objectives, and organization of a political party should be democratic and a political party must contribute to the development of sound democratic politics. Selecting candidates for the National Assembly through backroom deals is an abdication of those democratic responsibilities.
Finally opening up legislative candidate primaries to the general voting public ensures that ideologues at the extreme ends of the political spectrum are unlikely to be selected. Considering the dismal international reputation the National Assembly has for fighting and partisan political standoffs, opening up the primary process for these positions can only improve the chances for moderates from both sides to enter into the legislature.
However, as these economic and political advantages do not materialize when presidential nominations are thrown open to the general public there is no reason or purpose for the Saenuri Party, Democratic United Party or the United Progressive Party to open up their presidential nomination process to voters outside of their party. Nonetheless, prior to the next legislative election cycle each party should ensure that they follow democratic principles, not just due to constitutional provisions but as a straightforward way to improve South Korea’s economy and democracy.
By Daniel Fiedler
Daniel Fiedler is a professor of law at Wonkwang University. He also holds an honorary position as the lawyer representative for international marriages in Namwon, North Jeolla Province. ― Ed.