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Rival parties ping-pong over electoral reform

 Political tit-for-tat on election rules entered a new phase Wednesday as the main opposition leader dared the rival Saenuri Party to concede to proportional representation system overhaul, in return for accepting the ruling party’s suggestion on open primaries.

New Politics Alliance for Democracy chairman Rep. Moon Jae-in said Wednesday that he is willing to take the Saenuri Party’s proposal to hold open primaries to select candidates for the next general election on the condition that the ruling party agrees to change the current nationwide proportional representation voting system.

Moon’s proposal involves dividing the country into multiple proportional representation zones to allocate parliamentary seats according to the percentage of votes obtained by parties in each constituency. It is considered to be similar to Germany’s mixed-member proportional representation system. 

NPAD Chairman Rep. Moon Jae-in(center) made remarks during the meeting at the National Assembly on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
NPAD Chairman Rep. Moon Jae-in(center) made remarks during the meeting at the National Assembly on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
“If the Saenuri Party accepts our proportional representation, our party could endorse an open primary system,” said Moon. “I am fine with any platform by which we discuss this. It could be a meeting between the leaders of both parties or among the National Assembly’s relevant committee members,” said Moon.

But Saenuri Party chairman Rep. Kim Moo-sung virtually denied Moon’s proposal. He told reporters that proportional representation and open primaries were two “separate issues,” and the move is not “conducive” to political development. But he left room for discussion, saying “I will take time and give it consideration.”

Moon’s proposal was in line with the National Election Commission’s suggestion to amend the current single nationwide proportional representation system. Last February, the election watchdog asked the National Assembly to consider redrawing constituency lines for proportional representation.

According to the NEC’s plan, the current single nationwide constituency for proportional representation would be divided into six blocks, with each bloc assigned a number of proportional lawmakers based on its population. These proportional seats would then be distributed according to the rate of votes earned by the party. It suggested 300 parliamentary seats should be allocated for. 

Mindful of the impact Moon’s proposal would bring in the next 2016 general election, the parties have clashed over the issue of whether the revised voting system would fit Korea’s political landscape, where two major parties enjoy supremacy and rely on regional biases to muster their votes.

The NPAD asserts that the new system would help break the decades-old regional antagonism by giving each lawmaker a chance to be elected in a region where they are treated as underdogs through the new proportional seats that would be represented regionally rather than nationally.

The Saenuri Party, on the other hand, refuted, saying the system would inevitably bring about an increase in the number of lawmakers, which many Koreans consider unnecessary, because the plan involves getting more lawmakers elected through proportional representation by different constituencies. 

Critics were also split over Moon’s proposal. Lee Nae-young, professor of comparative politics at Korea University, said that the move would contribute to easing regional bias and breaking the two-party dominance in Korean politics. 

“Moon’s plan is a step in the right direction,” said Lee. “If Moon’s plan refers to Germany’s mixed-member proportional representation system, it will ease regional bias among Koreans and bring political diversity to Korea’s polarized political landscape,” said Lee.

“But, if we want to see Moon’s plan work well, we should increase the number of lawmakers elected through proportional representation. Certainly, it is unlikely to happen now, but we should push for it bit by bit. If not, we wouldn’t be maximizing the benefits of the German model,” said Lee. 

Shin Yul, a politics professor at Myongji University, accused the NPAD of failing to make their case for the new voting system. He criticized the party for lacking a strategy to pitch the plan to the public, who may struggle to understand the complexity of the voting system. 

“If NPAD’s plan is similar to Germany’s mixed-member proportional representation system, they have to spell out exactly what type of German system they are talking about. There are different categories under Germany’s system,” said Shin.

“What is worse, I don’t think they have ever considered how to explain such a complicated system to the public. Back when I was studying in Germany, even their political professors took more than two hours to fully explain it. They have to figure out a plan on how to communicate with the public,” said Shin.

By Yeo Jun-suk (