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[Editorial] A question of fairness

Election commission won’t let civic groups ask, ‘Why are we holding the by-elections?’

The election commission is facing questions about its neutrality ahead of the April 7 mayoral by-elections in Seoul.

This is a serious issue in that a partisan attitude can undermine fair elections, incapacitate democracy and open the way to dictatorship.

An alliance of 288 civic groups held a press conference in front of the Sejong Center in Seoul on Tuesday to denounce the election commission.

The coalition -- formed in response to sexual violence by a former Seoul mayor -- had planned to campaign for about a week and use the catchphrase “Why are we holding the by-elections? We want a gender-equal Seoul.” Its aim was to remind citizens that former Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s sexual misconduct is what led to the by-election.

The Seoul Election Commission disallowed the use of the phrase, so the organization suggested the alternative slogan “We vote for gender equality.” The commission said no to that idea too.

The Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections are taking place because both cities’ mayors were sex offenders. This is an obvious fact. It is hard to understand why publicizing that fact constitutes a violation of the election law.

The commission reportedly took the question of “why are we holding the by-elections?” seriously.

By its logic, the victim of Park’s sexual harassment should have been punished. She said indirectly through a press conference on March 17 that “the occasion that triggered the by-election is mostly forgotten.”

“Gender equality” is a slogan that no candidate would oppose. Also, a campaign for gender equality falls under freedom of expression. It is hard for the commission to avoid criticism that it is playing favorites.

Last month, Moon visited the planned site of a new airport to be built on Gadeokdo in Busan. “My heart beats to see the planned site of the new airport,” he said. It was a blatant promotion of the ruling party’s campaign promise. In South Korea, election law obligates government officials to maintain political neutrality.

But the election commission decided that Moon was carrying out state affairs normally.

A citizen placed anonymous ads in four newspapers on March 19 urging two Seoul mayoral candidates representing opposition parties to unify their candidacy. The following day, two officials from the Seoul Election Commission visited the citizen’s company abruptly and summoned the person to the commission to undergo investigation. The commission considers the ad part of an illegal campaign.

Raising an issue with an ordinary citizen’s call for two politicians to join forces borders on restricting freedom of expression. Furthermore, these days it is common for people to post comments on social media or the internet in which they bluntly support or criticize certain parties or candidates. In its efforts to check the legitimacy of the ad so strictly, the commission is swimming against the current of the times.

Last year the commission came under criticism for applying a double standard. Ahead of the April 15 general election, the commission refused to allow opposition party candidates to use slogans containing the expression “the breakdown of the people’s livelihood.” However, it allowed ruling party candidates to hang banners containing the expressions “the elimination of old evils” and “the punishment of pro-Japanese Koreans.”

Yet in January, the commission judged a campaign by the Traffic Broadcasting System as being in compliance with the election law. The ambiguously titled campaign to increase its audience suggested voting for the party marked “No. 1” on the ballot paper. Usually, ruling party candidates appear on ballots as choice No. 1.

As a matter of fact, the National Election Commission has come under suspicion regarding the impartiality of its members.

A commissioner whom Moon appointed worked on his successful 2017 presidential campaign. Another commissioner, also appointed by the president, tweeted “Hurrah!” when Park Won-soon was elected mayor of Seoul in 2011.

Incessant disputes over favoritism only promote distrust of elections. An election commission exists to ensure a fair election. It has no reason to exist if its neutrality and fairness are constantly in doubt.