South Korea became the first country in Asia to allow voting rights to foreign residents in local elections in 2005. At this year’s local elections on June 13, over 100,000 non-Korean nationals are eligible to vote. Although it has been more than a decade since the voting rights were granted, the non-Korean electorate still misses out on details of the elections and candidates’ platforms.
Shah Rafiq, a Pakistani who has lived in Korea for over 14 years, said he would not vote in the upcoming elections because he does not know what the candidates are trying to promote.
Officials check printed ballots at the Gyeonggi Province Election Commission in Suwon, south of Seoul on June 4. (Yonhap)
“I am not going to vote. I am aware of three political parties here, but it’s just too difficult to follow Korean politics. There are not many channels for me to get that information and the language is too difficult,” Rafiq, 50, said in Korean, in the expat-friendly neighborhood of Itaewon in Seoul on Monday.
Behind him, lines of colorful election banners were hanging in between streetlamps, and canvassing trucks of city council member nominees passed by blaring theme songs to encourage passersby to vote for their candidates -- all written and spoken in Korean.
“I can see there is an election coming up, but I did not even know who they were trying to elect,” Shon Baker, a marriage migrant visa (F-6) holder said. “I have lived here for over four years and I do not have voting rights yet. But the atmosphere is that the election is just for Koreans,” he said, adding he would not know who to ask for information about the elections. An F-6 visa holder must live in the country for two years or more under that visa to apply for F-5 visa.
The South Korean government revised the Immigration Control Act in 2005 to allow non-Korean citizens who have held resident visas (F-5) for at least three years to vote for politicians in their registered local constituencies. The quadrennial local elections have been held three times since then -- in 2006, 2010 and 2014 -- but the situation has not changed much.
According to the National Election Commission, the number of non-Korean voters for this year’s local elections is 106,205, the highest number since the system was introduced, and more than double the 48,428 recorded for the 2014 local elections.
While it is aware of the increasing number of foreign residents, the election commission appears to be slow in providing information about the candidates in languages other than Korean.
The NEC website provides detailed information on candidates running in the mayoral, provincial and city council elections -- from their assets and past careers to their manifestos -- but only in Korean.
For the first time, the NEC made the mandated notice it sends to houses of the Electoral College in English and Chinese, for non-Korean national voters. The informative pamphlet was also released in Japanese and Vietnamese in the form of PDF files on its Korean site. But it only explains the election process.
An election canvassing truck of a city council member nominee from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea drives through a street in Itaewon, central Seoul on Monday. (Jo He-rim/The Korea Herald)
As for regional multicultural family support centers that are set up by the government across the country, and foreigner service centers, politics is a sensitive topic that they are reluctant to address with multicultural families.
“We did run a mock election a couple of weeks ago. But they were focused on procedural aspects of the elections. It is difficult for us to tell the electorate about the manifestos and information about all of the candidates,” Han Sun-kyu, the secretary-general of the Yongsan Multicultural Family Support Center, told The Korea Herald.
Ansan Multicultural Support Headquarters was established by Ansan City of Gyeonggi Province to support its 78,600 foreign residents who account for 10.7 percent of the entire city population. But it was also not responsible for matters related to election information.
“We do not provide information about the elections, and we do not have plans to prepare them,” Jang Dong-min from Ansan Multicultural Support Headquarters said.
Han from the Yongsan support center pointed out there are many foreign voters who are not aware of their rights, and many appear to be uninterested as well.
“There have not been many requests. When we hosted the mock election class, only 10 people came. Foreigners do not appear very interested in the upcoming elections, even though they have voting rights.”
A naturalized Korean citizen from Vietnam, who participated in the two-day early voting on Friday and Saturday, said it is important to cast a ballot after gaining an in-depth understanding of Korean society and politics, as manifestos cannot tell all there is to know about politicians.
“You cannot be sure if the person is all right or not just by looking at the election pledges. I had voted for former President Park Geun-hye to support the first woman president, but it did not turn out well,” Lee Eun-hee, not her real name, told The Korea Herald. This year, she cast her vote in early voting, after taking into consideration the opinions of her husband.
By Jo He-rim (email@example.com