Today Korea holds elections for all levels of local government. The elections for mayor and governor, particularly in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, have attracted the most attention. The elections also include nonpartisan races for head of city and provincial boards of education. During the campaign, both major parties have tried to tie the elections to national issues, but local issues and feelings about candidates also move voters.
Elected local government is relatively new in Korea. Local elections were held in the early years of the Republic, but President Park Chung-hee suspended them in 1965 in favor of an appointment system. The first local elections in 30 years were held in 1995, and they have been held every four years since. Elections for heads of boards of education began in stages in 2007 and were added to the nationwide local elections starting in 2010. Thirty years ago today, the only directly elected officials in Korea were members of the National Assembly, but today the president, all local representatives and the heads of boards of education are elected. In the 2012 Economist Intelligence Unit annual Democracy Index, Korea ranks 20th in world and the highest in Asia. This a great accomplishment.
The local elections are a chance to pause and think about broader issues in local government in Korea. The first, of course, is the power of local governments, a question which is closely related to the ability to tax and spend. Out of all taxes paid, only about 20 percent goes to local governments, the rest goes to the national government. This forces all but the wealthiest local governments to be dependent on the central government for funding. Local governments thus have difficulty in responding to citizens’ needs because funding is beyond their control. There are advantages to the current system, however, because the national government can use its budget to support poorer areas that could not raise enough revenue on their own. When overdone, of course, this could lead to lavish and wasteful subsidies for rural areas that weaken the overall economy. Japan, with its high national debt and low economic growth is an example of this problem.
Another issue is the power of elected representatives versus local civil servants. As things stand now, the main interface between citizens and the government is bureaucracy. Citizens can submit complaints, known as “minwon,” to the government by phone, online or in person. The complaint then goes to the appropriate section of the government, where a civil servant looks at the issue and then responds to the citizen in writing. The elected representative is cut out of the process. A citizen can, of course, complain to the representative, who can then help the citizen gain access to higher authorities in the bureaucracy who may hear the complaint. The problem is that the representative does not have a staff that can advocate the citizen’s case. Citizens know this and most end up dealing directly with the bureaucracy which is, of course, unelected.
Finally, another issue is accountability. Perhaps because of its limited power, local government receives far less attention than national government. The lack of outside scrutiny combined with the nexus of local interests makes it easy for politicians to fall victim to conflicts of interest. In the many controversies of redevelopment in cities, elected officials, bureaucrats and business interests are often aligned with those in favor of redevelopment, leaving citizens who are opposed it without local representation. Their only choice is to demonstrate and appeal their case through media attention.
To deal with these issues and others, it is time to change the focus from local autonomy to local democracy. The two are intertwined, but have a different focus. Local autonomy focuses on enhancing the power of local governments by giving them greater responsibility for decision-making. Local democracy focuses on the process of how such decisions are made. The essential problem with local government in Korea is that democratic procedures have yet to take root. Local representatives lack the power to be strong citizen-advocates, leaving bureaucrats as the main interface between citizens and the government, which is dependent on the central government for funding. Citizens cannot petition the government to hold a local referendum and they cannot vote on matters related to local taxation.
The recent expansion of local autonomy to include heads of boards of education, however, offers hope that procedures to improve local democracy will be adopted in good time. Korea is, after all, the first nation in Asia to give foreigners with permanent residency the right to vote in local elections.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser is an associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University. ― Ed.