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[Voice] Does Korea have too many lawmakers?

With 300 members in the National Assembly ...

The National Assembly is pictured in Yeouido, Seoul, on Jan. 27. The parliamentary session for the day was canceled due to confrontation between lawmakers over the confirmation of the Constitutional Court presidential nominee and an audit into the controversy at Ssangyong Motor, drawing criticism from the public. (Yonhap News)
The National Assembly is pictured in Yeouido, Seoul, on Jan. 27. The parliamentary session for the day was canceled due to confrontation between lawmakers over the confirmation of the Constitutional Court presidential nominee and an audit into the controversy at Ssangyong Motor, drawing criticism from the public. (Yonhap News)
In the eyes of many Koreans, the nation’s lawmakers are overpaid and offered too many privileges at the public’s expense. Not only that, some would say, but they are just too great in number. Once a prominent element of the drive for “new politics,” the case for reducing the number of lawmakers at the National Assembly has retreated from the political discourse since the election victory of President-elect Park Geun-hye.

Populism

First proposed by independent presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, and then taken up by the Democratic United Party and the Saenuri Party, the idea had been one of the key political reform issues of the election. President-elect Park, who initially dismissed Ahn’s proposal as populism during the campaign, has not addressed the measure since she secured passage to the Blue House in December.

The idea would seem to be popular among the public ― in one poll by Shin Donga magazine, a whopping 93.9 percent of respondents supported Ahn’s reform package which included a reduction in the number of lawmakers to 200 and an end to public funds for political parties.

“Many people tend to be favorable toward a reduction in the number of lawmakers,” said Hong Deuk-pyo, a politics professor at Inha University in Incheon. “The primary reason is that people distrust the National Assembly. People believe that lawmakers work for their political ambitions and patricians’ interests rather than for the people and for the national interest.”

Hong said that cutting the number of assemblymen would have a favorable psychological effect on the public and positive impact on the national budget.

“Reduction in the number of lawmakers would contribute to enhancing the psychological satisfaction of the people and relief relative deprivation. And it also has advantages in saving the national budget.”

While Ahn and others envisioned a less bloated National Assembly, Korea’s number of people per representative falls somewhat mid-table in comparison with other countries. At roughly 160,000 people per lawmaker, Korea’s inhabitants enjoy far greater representation than those of the U.S., where each congressman represents roughly 500,000 constituents. Many other developed countries, however, actually have more representatives per person ― each member of Parliament in the U.K. represents roughly 50,000 people, while Italy, France and Spain are not far behind.

Some observers, in fact, argue that Koreans are underrepresented in the National Assembly. Rather than fewer lawmakers, Korea needs more, according to Cho Sung-dai, the chair of the Center for National Assembly Watch, a division of civic group People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy.

Localized politics

“Say that there are 100 lawmakers in the National Assembly, then the problem is that they are representing a very large population,” said Cho. “But when you think about democracy, per se, it is a good idea to have a large number of representatives in terms of political representation because one member is representing a fewer number of voters.”

Acknowledging the risk of localizing politics further with more lawmakers, Cho said his organization supported an increase in the number of proportional representatives rather than district seats.

“We have a serious representation problem in Korean politics. A lot of the lower-income earners are not represented in the parliamentary system. We think if we increase the proportional representation, maybe they could represent those kinds of classes, we hope.”

Also skeptical of the merits of a slimmed down legislature is Yun Seong-yi, a politics professor at Kyung Hee University. Slashing the number of representatives would temporally assuage the negative public opinion toward politicians, he said, but do little to improve the workings of democracy. The nation’s regionalism, for example, would not be addressed by having fewer lawmakers.

“I think it is a problem of people’s inclinations and emotions and the Honam area’s population against the Yeongnam area and the Saenuri Party and vice versa. So even if there is a small number of lawmakers in the Yeongnam area and Honam area, (does) it mean it will cut down on the anti feelings against region or party? I don’t think so.”

Instead, he said, increasing the autonomy of individual lawmakers, as one measure, would make for a more efficient National Assembly.

“When it comes to cast the vote on a certain public vote or public policy, each lawmaker is not free or independent,” said Yun. “They must ask the leaders of the political party and they must follow the decisions of the political leaders. That’s the problem. It is very unusual to observe cross-voting among parties.”

Budget waste

Sohn Ho-cheol, a politics professor at Sogang University, said reducing the number of lawmakers could actually exacerbate some of the problems such plans are designed to address.

“If you reduce the number in the National Assembly it is going to be more elite orientated and they become more and more privileged than the current status so that is not going to be the solution,” said Sohn.

Similarly, a reduced number of lawmakers could end up costing rather than saving money, he said.

“If the National Assembly does the proper things, for example preventing the national government form wasting a lot of the national budget, it is going to be more productive.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com)


Readers' voice

Should Korea have fewer lawmakers…

I do not think Korea has too many lawmakers (but the opposite). There’s no one who would consider Korea a fully consolidated democratic country. Currently Korea faces several problems, e.g. non-consolidated party system, very weak civic society and most importantly the apathy and antipathy from citizens toward the system that is partly a result of (besides several corruption scandals) insufficient interest representation.

In the so-called classical “European” democracies it is common to have a relatively larger number of lawmakers to solve this deficit. Sometimes it is achieved through bicameralism, the existence of a senate/upper house whose goal is to control (meaning, to check) the lower house. In some cases it also aims to represent interests in a regional dimension; nevertheless, this function in the case of the Republic of Korea represents political parties which are not typical “catch-all parties” because they have very strong regional/historical roots.

That’s why I do not consider plans to reduce the number of lawmakers a wise decision (especially when we argue with “it costs taxpayers a lot of money”). It would be at the expense of the interest representation which, in the current Korean political system/politics, is very insufficient. We should instead think about the effectiveness or the possibility of changing the electoral system but unfortunately we would have to face the problem of interest representation versus good (moral) personality.

I always say it was a good idea to establish a mixed electoral system in the Republic of Korea, but on the other hand, this system should not be a rigid one. It means this system has to be more flexible to react to changes in society, be more representative of different interests, and therefore be able to achieve greater citizen support and interest in politics and public affairs in general ― the most important prerequisite for a “healthy” democracy.

― Martin Gurin, Prague, Czech Republic

Well, Ireland’s equivalent of Korea’s National Assembly has almost 230 members, but we have less than a tenth of Korea’s population. Numbers are not important; the quality of the members is. The bigger issue is that both countries (although Ireland less so) are gerontocracies often susceptible to venality.

― Brian Arundel, Seoul, via Facebook

I don’t think so. Reducing their privileges and the money spent for them is a better way.

― Jung Un-soo, via Facebook
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