NATIONAL

[Feature] Presidential petition: platform for constructive proposals or witch hunt?

By Jo He-rim

Discussion underway to improve Blue House’s e-petition system

  • Published : Dec 10, 2018 - 16:54
  • Updated : Dec 10, 2018 - 20:40

A slow news day? Look no further than the electronic petition system run by the presidential office for raging public debates on everything from the highly personal request of extending summer vacations to highly divisive and unaddressed grievances that all ask for the immediate attention of the Blue House.

The online petition system, which allows people to file a petition anonymously, has seen more than 357,000 petitions made since it was launched in August 2017 by the Moon Jae-in administration. And with the government’s pledge to respond to petitions that gain more than 200,000 signatures within a month, the online petition board has become a popular route for Koreans to express their concerns and complaints to the president.

(Screen captured from the presidential e-petition website)

“I think it is great that anyone can raise an issue on the presidential e-petition system,” Kim Han-sem, an office worker in Seoul, told The Korea Herald. “I do not think there was a place for us to express our problems or call for help in this way before.”

The petitions, ranging from those related to trivial daily difficulties to crimes and unfair judgment, have triggered discussions on social norms, ethics and the law, reflecting the public sentiment.

The popularity of the petition board is evident: There has been a large number of petitions made in the past year, and people have supported issues raised on the platform.

For instance, when a petitioner criticized the judiciary for lenient sentencing for crimes claimed to have been committed by mentally ill persons, in October, the petition received more than a million signatures in support.

However, there are also petitions asking for the petition board to be abolished, citing how it has become a source of “needless conflicts” and even an arena for witch hunts.

Revival of petition right

The large number of petitions received by the Blue House’s online system contrasts to those sent to other government bodies, earning praise that it has “revived” the right to petition stipulated in the Korean Constitution, which had largely been perceived as a dead letter.

According to data that the Interior Ministry submitted to the National Assembly Research Service, only 18 petitions were received by three government bodies -- out of 40 -- last year.

The National Assembly Research Service said in its report that the presidential e-petition system is “more accessible” than a paper-based petition process. Because the petition system is open to all and can get the attention of the highest power, it contributes to enhancing the political efficacy of the public, the report added.

The Blue House’s system has led to some substantive policy changes. A revision bill of the Road Traffic Act to toughen penalties against drunk drivers recently passed the National Assembly, after a presidential petition exposed an accident in which 22-year-old soldier Yoon Chang-ho was killed by a drunk driver.

It was also on the petition board that the problem of accidentally leaving young children inside school buses was raised. Lawmakers responded by revising the law to require drivers to check buses to make sure no one is left inside.

“A kangaroo court?”

The relative lack of intervention by the site administrator -- other than the published guideline for the removal of certain petitions, such as those containing offensive language -- has sparked criticism that the Blue House’s petition site promotes witch hunts or serves as a “kangaroo court.”

Some also express fatigue, saying the e-petition system has become a free-for-all ground for baseless slander.

A recent assault case involving three men and two women at a bar near Isu Station triggered a gender war online, when the women uploaded a petition claiming that they were attacked by the men for their feminist choices.

The petition gathered more than 362,500 signatures soon after it was posted on Nov. 14. Police investigation, however, found that the conflict started after one of the women lightly hit one of the men on the hand.

While the petition awaits presidential response, the police investigation is still ongoing.

It goes without saying that some of the petitions cannot be addressed by the Blue House. To a petition calling for the expulsion of a lawmaker for making a controversial remark, the Blue House responded that it was beyond the power of the presidential office. A similar response was given to a petition asking for the disqualification of national team athletes over conflicts within sports organizations.

There are also some very personal and sometimes irrational petitions, such as one that demanded the government establish military brothels.

“As ill-considered petitions pile up, those that have some important messages could get buried,” said Jeong Jae-hwan, a legislation researcher at the NARS.

While 6 in 10 people appear to support the presidential petition system, many of them think that some kind of revision should be made. According to local pollster Realmeter’s survey released on June 20, of the 501 respondents, 20.1 percent said they are satisfied with the current system, while 40.2 percent said a revision is needed.

Thirty-two percent said the system incited social conflicts and should be abolished, while 7.7 percent answered that they do not know.

Not everyone is satisfied with the presidential office’s response to the petitions.

“As a citizen, it is good to know that my opinion can be delivered directly to the president. But sometimes their answers are disappointing. All they can say is: ‘There are a lot of problems, but we cannot do anything about it,’” An Ha-jin, who declined to give her real name, told The Korea Herald.

Kim Jin-hong, 30, actively participates in supporting different petitions, but he has lowered his expectations, as the answers given by the presidential office appear to be “copy, pasted.”

Currently 56 petitions have received responses from presidential officials and concerned ministers. Thirteen petitions were awaiting a response, as of Monday.

The presidential office is often limited in its response, as the petitions are often related to crimes or court rulings, issues, which should be addressed by police and the courts under the separation of powers among the three branches of the government.

For example, the presidential secretary on new media’s response to a petition calling for the impeachment of a judge who handed down a suspended sentence for Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong was that she would relay the petition to the National Court Administration. This drew criticism for violating the principle of the separation of powers.

Discussion for improvement

The presidential office recently hinted that it is reviewing the system to improve it.

“We are not going to make big changes, but we are reviewing ways to improve the system and to resolve the problems raised on it,” presidential spokesman Kwon Hyuk-ki said.

Among the suggestions for improvement is implementing a real-name requirement for the currently anonymous petition process.

Currently, the presidential petition system only asks people to log in using their social media accounts -- Naver, Facebook and Twitter -- to make or sign petitions. Neither their names nor their account names will be revealed.

This, however, has led to some abusing the system by signing a petition multiple times to reach the 200,000-mark required for the government’s response. The presidential office recently banned users from logging in with their Kakao account after finding such irregularities.

Introducing the real-name requirement for e-petitions may make people more cautious about petitioning.

Jeong at NARS suggested setting higher criteria for making the petitions on the presidential website public.

During the Barack Obama administration, the United States created an e-petition board dubbed “We the People” in September 2011. There, a petition needs to first gather at least 150 signatures for it to be opened for public discussion.

The Scottish parliament, which was the first to introduce the e-petition system in 2000, has a special panel that reviews and takes follow-up measure to either accept or reject the petition.

As for the UK, an e-petition site opened in 2006 by the prime minister was reformed after 2010 to be operated by the House of Commons.

In Korea, the National Assembly is also moving to establish its own petition board, to reflect growing demand from the people. The National Assembly also takes petitions from the public, but the process is more complex -- one can only register the petition via a lawmaker. There have been 227 petitions registered at the National Assembly during the four years of the 19th parliament, and only two have resulted in legislative changes.

The reform consultative committee at the National Assembly reported in November that it is reviewing the creation of a petition board open to all, through which they can receive a response from the National Assembly speaker’s office or related parliamentary committees.

“Before, people would just give up when they found themselves against the authority. But now, we see that people have changed, and a growing number of people are raising their voices by participating in the petitions,” said Lee Dong-gwi, a psychology professor at Yonsei University.

“We are also witnessing a mob mentality. There are two sides to this, and it is important to have measures to minimize the ill side effects.”

Jung Hye-seung, presidential secretary on media, believes it is okay for the presidential petition board to become “a playground” for the people.

“It is possible for funny and unrealistic suggestions to be made there, and I do believe the people need an outlet for their anger against society,” Jung said.

“But what we want is for everyone to respect a certain line, so that it does not become a ground for witch hunts.”

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)