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[Editorial] United for neutrality

NEC’s standing commissioner leaves on demand by entire staff

Cho Hai-ju, the standing commissioner of the National Election Commission, was going to stay on the commission at President Moon Jae-in’s request, but left it under its staff’s collective pressure.

This is an unprecedented incident.

Days before his term as the standing commissioner expires, Cho reportedly expressed an intention to leave the commission completely. But Moon was said to have requested he keep a nonstanding commissioner position after resigning as the standing commissioner. Moon effectively rejected Cho’s departure from the election management agency.

After news reports came out about Moon’s rejection of Cho’s resignation, all NEC employees and leaders of its 17 metropolitan and provincial election commissions across the country were said to have delivered their joint position to Cho, urging him to leave the commission immediately according to custom. Virtually all election management officials rose up against the president’s attempt to retain Cho.

Cho eventually expressed his will to resign again and Moon accepted his resignation on Friday. Cho apologized to internal staff for letting the neutrality and impartiality of the commission come into question in the wake of the president’s rejection of his resignation.

The commission has nine commissioners. The standing commissioner is elected among commissioners. The term of commissioners is six years but that of the standing commissioner three years. The standing commissioner has a great influence on election management. Every standing commissioner has so far left the NEC without exception after completing the three-year term.

Cho first followed the custom. Before his term expires Monday, he expressed his intention to resign to Cheong Wa Dae, but Moon declined, reportedly asking him to remain as a nonstanding commissioner for three more years. Cho was said to have accepted Moon’s request.

Cho’s qualification as an NEC commissioner was questionable. He was a special adviser to Moon’s 2017 presidential campaign.

Under Cho, the commission has been embroiled in controversies over its neutrality in managing elections. Ahead of the 2020 general elections, it allowed the use of phrases promoting achievements of the Moon administration on placards, while banning phrases critical of the government.

Before the Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections last year, the commission banned a civic group’s campaign titled “Why do we hold the by-elections?” It said the question calls to voters’ minds the sex crimes by the former Seoul and Busan mayors, both of whom belonged to the ruling party. However, it probed a citizen for placing an ad that urged opposition candidates to unify their candidacy.

Despite criticisms over the bias of the commission under Cho, Moon tried to retain him. Probably the president sought to hold the upcoming presidential election in an environment favorable to the ruling party’s candidate.

It is worrisome that all of the current seven commissioners, exclusive of Cho who resigned, are on the side of the Moon regime. All of them were appointed after Moon took office.

The president appoints three commissioners, the Supreme Court chief justice nominates three and the National Assembly elects three. Each of the ruling and main opposition parties recommends a candidate and also jointly recommends another. The position to be filled with a figure recommended by opposition parties is vacant.

The opposition People Power Party recommended a commissioner candidate, but the ruling Democratic Party of Korea with a parliamentary majority has stalled a bill to elect the candidate as commissioner, raising issue with the candidate’s brief PPP membership. Given Cho’s career, the DP is hypocritical.

After Cho reportedly left under staff pressure, the PPP-recommended candidate withdrew his candidacy voluntarily on Saturday, praising the NEC staff’s courage to urge Cho’s resignation and opening a way for the PPP to look for a new candidate.

Neutrality is all about election management, but that of the current commission is questioned over the 2020 general elections and the 2021 by-elections. The agency must not only allow interventions that undermine its neutrality, but also put a brake on activities that shake fair elections.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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