Political parties in South Korea are set to discuss electoral reform measures next week in a bid to fix the problems with the current mixed-member proportional representation system. But the outlook for a breakthrough is far from positive, given that major parties and their lawmakers seem unlikely to give up their vested interests.
All lawmakers from the ruling People Power Party, the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea and the minor opposition Justice Party are scheduled to attend a parliamentary meeting on March 27 to explore three electoral reform proposals. It is the first time in 19 years that such meeting for all lawmakers will be held, illustrating the importance of an electoral reform bill ahead of the general election next year.
Lawmakers are aware of the public criticism toward the current election system which is riddled with loopholes. In December 2019, the National Assembly passed an election reform bill to introduce a new proportional representation system.
Under the new system, voters submitted two ballots on April 15, 2020 -- one for a candidate running in a single-member district, and one for a party at a national level. Out of the total 300 seats, 253 seats were determined on a simple majority or a first-past-the-post rule. The remaining 47 seats were given out through proportional representation in accordance with the percentage of total votes cast for a party.
In the general election of 2020, leading political parties exploited loopholes in the system by forging what are called “satellite parties,” thinly-veiled affiliated parties aimed at expanding their seats and influence in the National Assembly.
As a result, the election ended up with a winner-takes-it-all rule, undercutting the original purpose of the revised election law and proving once again that lawmakers were flexible enough to take advantage of any flaw in the election system as far as their political interests were concerned.
This time around, expectations for a new system are on the rise. In a survey released by the political reform committee last month, 72.4 percent of respondents said the election system should be changed. Both ruling and opposition parties appear willing to work on revising the related law.
But the incumbent lawmakers might put a brake on the reform bill if a new system compromises their vested interests, which makes it difficult to predict how the reform bill will play out.
The political reform committee of the National Assembly put out the three proposals to revise the current election law on March 17, each of which has pros and cons in terms of available seats and the representation of voters.
The first reform proposal will keep the directly elected seats, namely the single constituency system, and add 50 more lawmakers who will be chosen through an expanded proportional representation rule that reflects votes cast in different regions. This will keep the number of 253 lawmakers elected through the single constituency system but will increase the number of lawmakers based on proportional representation to 97. This option will increase the total number of lawmakers to 350.
The second reform proposal, which will also result in 350 lawmakers, is basically the current system -- known as the quasi-proportional representation -- with a legislation of a separate law designed to block political parties from creating satellite parties.
The third proposal is to elect more than two lawmakers in a single district, which is said to be effective in preventing big parties from monopolizing seats at the National Assembly. As President Yoon Suk Yeol reportedly favors this system, the ruling party seems to embrace this option, marking a drastic departure from the current system.
Regardless of which proposal will be adopted, an option to add more lawmakers will face fierce opposition from the public, many of whom are critical of lawmakers who are quick to raise their salary and go on taxpayer-funded overseas trips without doing their jobs properly. Any serious discussion about reforms should start from current lawmakers’ determination to lay down their vested interests. If not, a new electoral reform bill will fail -- once again.