Lawmakers from the main opposition Liberty Korea Party have taken turns staging sit-in protests over President Moon Jae-in’s decision last week to appoint a controversial figure to a key post at the state election watchdog. The appointee, Cho Hai-ju, allegedly helped Moon campaign for the 2017 presidential election.
Moon pushed ahead with the appointment, although opposition parties refused to hold a confirmation hearing for Cho out of concern that he might not be capable of maintaining political neutrality as a standing commissioner of the National Election Commission. The main opposition party has also vowed to boycott an extraordinary parliamentary session scheduled for next month.
With Moon keeping silent on his controversial decision, a senior lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea has come forward to counter the criticism that Cho should be considered ineligible for the post.
Rep. Min Byung-doo, who led a group of special advisers for Moon during the 2017 election, said he had not seen Cho and “had no memory of appointing him as a special adviser on fair elections.” He played down the inclusion of Cho’s name under that title in a white paper released by the ruling party after the election as a mere mistake by a working-level staff member.
The lawmaker also dismissed reports of what the opposition had claimed was a transcript of a former NEC official’s testimony to the effect that many commission officials knew Cho was on Moon’s campaign team. Rep. Min called the reports “fake news,” arguing that the document had not been authenticated.
Cho served as a senior official at a provincial election commission for three years starting in 2010.
Rep. Min’s explanation is hardly persuasive, given that many people competed to have their names included in the postelection report published by the ruling party. It is difficult to believe Cho’s name could have been mistakenly placed on the list of figures who contributed to Moon’s election victory if he played no role.
Ensuring political neutrality and fairness should be a key consideration in appointing an NEC commissioner, who is supposed to assume the role of a referee in elections -- a crucial part in the democratic process. A law governing the election watchdog stipulates that commissioners can be dismissed if they are found to have joined a political party or engaged in politics.
So far, some figures known to be relatively close to political parties have been named as NEC commissioners. But there had been no precedent for a member of a presidential campaign team to be appointed to the post until Moon made the controversial choice.
Cho’s appointment is drawing all the more concern from the Liberty Korea Party and other opposition parties as he will be in a position to manage next year’s parliamentary elections as the commission’s No. 2 official during his three-year term.
The move is certain to increase political tensions by making opposition parties more ready to take issue with what they see as unfair electoral management.
More immediately, intensified wrangling between the rival parties might delay the passage of key bills needed to shore up people’s livelihoods during the next parliamentary session and could derail discussions on reforming the electoral system to reflect the will of voters more effectively.
President Moon might well be held responsible for causing such political paralysis by sticking to his controversial appointment.
It is ironic that Moon, who criticized his predecessor for disregarding parliamentary roles, has made so little use of parliamentary confirmation hearings. Cho is the eighth figure Moon has appointed to a ministerial-level post without receiving parliamentary consent.
The president is authorized to make appointments regardless of the results of parliamentary hearings. But this does not mean the process can be ignored. A president is still required to follow and respect the process. Cho’s appointment has reinforced the perception that Moon feels too free to disregard parliamentary confirmation hearings.
What should also be noted is the inability of opposition parties, particularly the Liberty Korea Party, to counter the Moon administration’s increasing tendency to act arbitrarily.
The Liberty Korea Party has invited derision from the ruling party by proclaiming its lawmakers would go on hunger strike “for 5 1/2 hours a day” while taking turns staging the sit-in. This easygoing method of protest will do little to keep in check what the opposition views as arbitrary government actions that violate democratic principles.