The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Proportional seats in trouble

Proportional representation system continues to spark disputes over candidates’ qualifications

By Korea Herald

Published : March 14, 2024 - 05:30

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South Korean voters are already feeling deep political fatigue, as major parties have unsurprisingly sparked a flurry of disputes over their candidates for the upcoming National Assembly election.

On Tuesday, Jeon Ji-yeh offered to resign from her candidacy for a proportional representative seat for a satellite party linked to the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, a development that sheds light on the fundamental weakness of the current election system.

A civic group earlier recommended Jeon as the first candidate of the satellite party for proportional seats, but Jeon decided to step down after she found herself the subject of controversy over her past affiliations with anti-US groups.

Jeon reportedly worked as a leader of a civic group opposing the annual Korea-US joint military drills, and was seen picketing against the Korea-US alliance as recently as November.

Another candidate of the same satellite party for proportional seats allegedly led a protest against the deployment of the US-deployed THAAD anti-missile system in Korea.

It is not the first time that Korean election candidates have had their suitability questioned in regard to their political and ideological backgrounds. But Jeon’s resignation is particularly noteworthy, as it illustrates the problems with what is called the “semi-mixed-member proportional representation system,” a peculiar system that remains open to shameless exploitation by major parties.

The semi-mixed-member proportional representation system, which will be applied to the April parliamentary election, allows for a segment of the seats to be assigned according to party votes rather than votes for individual candidates within electoral districts.

Of the total 300 legislative seats, 47 will be allocated through this proportional representation, while the remaining 253 will be determined through a direct vote at the district level.

But there are quirky details in the system that incentivize the creation of satellite parties. Under the current arrangement, satellite parties are formed of members who temporarily depart from the major parties in order to gain additional seats through the proportional representative seats.

The lack of regulations in this tweaked system makes it difficult to filter out proportional candidates saddled with poor or controversial qualifications.

The Democratic Party is trying to move past the candidate-related disputes after Jeon stepped down, but public opinion is likely to turn negative since it is the opposition party’s leader Lee Jae-myung who decided last month to retain the controversy-laden proportional representation system for the April election.

Critics have argued the semi-mixed-member proportional representation system could open the door of the National Assembly to extremist politicians because it leads to the creation of problematic satellite parties and lacks a proper qualification assessment process.

Controversy is not limited to the satellite parties. Regular candidates from the main parties are not free from dispute. For instance, the ruling People Power Party is facing criticism for the recommendation of a candidate for a seat in Daegu after the figure was accused of posting provocative articles in a conservative extremist online community. The party’s interim leader Han Dong-hoon asked for a review of the recommendation process, but party leaders have to realize that it is not an isolated case.

Cho Kuk, a former justice minister, launched the Rebuilding Korea Party last month, which is deemed a satellite party related to the Democratic Party. Some of the Rebuilding Korea Party candidates are embroiled in disputes over their qualifications, including criminal records. In fact, Cho has to deal with his own tainted record. Last month, the Seoul High Court upheld a two-year prison sentence for Cho, who was convicted of academic fraud involving his children and unlawful interference with a state inspection into a corruption case by using his power as a presidential aide.

The proportional representation system was originally designed to offer opportunities to specialists and the socially underprivileged. Unfortunately, after major parties abolished the regulations over proportional candidate selection in 2020, the system has turned into a scandal-laden tool to secure more seats.