Political insults in South Korea make American politics look tame. Liberals call conservatives “authoritarian pro-Japanese traitors,” while conservatives call the current liberal government a “pro-North Korean leftist dictatorship.” But politics here are not simply two-sided; there have always been small third parties in the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea. They usually gain relevance by aligning themselves with one of the two main parties: the center-left Democratic Party or the right-wing party formerly known as the Liberty Korea Party (LKP). After a series of party mergers and secessions in early 2020 there are, at the time of this article’s publication, nine parties in the National Assembly, including a merger of the LKP and two smaller conservative parties to form the Unified Future Party (UFP).
In the final days of 2019, ostensibly to empower smaller parties and their voters, a coalition of the Democratic party and four smaller parties (which excluded the LKP) came together to pass an electoral reform law that would change how representatives are allotted in the National Assembly. The law aimed to increase minority party representation and more accurately reflect the support of smaller parties.
At first, it seemed like these reforms should have been popular; 73.4 percent of voters said in December 2018 that the original “mixed member majoritarian” (MMM) system does not accurately represent the will of the people. Currently, under MMM, votes to a candidate or a party not popular within a district are typically seen as “dead votes.” In some Democratic Party strongholds, conservatives sometimes don’t even have a candidate in legislative elections and vice versa. Because elections of representatives are mostly on a first-past-the-post basis, any voter who favors a candidate or party that is unpopular in the area is effectively disenfranchised. To prevent these “dead votes,” a “mixed member proportional” (MMP) system was proposed by lawmakers as early as 2012, which would up the number of “proportional representatives,” seats awarded to parties weak in individual districts, but with some percent of national support.
While political discourse in South Korea initially favored the MMP system, two factors led to its political demise. The first of these factors was partisan tension. Opposition from the Democratic Party and the LKP, who would lose seats under the system, complicated the issue. The LKP called the reform a “declaration of war” and a plan to institute a “leftist dictatorship.” Eventually, the electoral reform coalition compromised on a “quasi mixed member proportional system” (Quasi MMP), which hybridizes South Korea’s previous MMM and proposed MMP systems. Under the compromise, only half of the number of proportional representatives that would be allotted to a party under the proposed MMP system are actually given to the party.
As a “trial run” for this reform, the number of Quasi MMP representatives is limited to 30 out of the existing 47 proportional representatives. The remaining 17 would be allotted based on the original MMM calculation system (just for the upcoming April 2020 election). Initially, smaller parties enthusiastically supported this system, since they would theoretically gain more power in the assembly. In reality, after near constant news coverage of the reform’s potential to create change, the half-baked compromise achieved nothing of substance.
The second factor that doomed electoral reform is the profound lack of trust in Korea’s legislature. The main source of this distrust is the privileges and constitutional protections afforded to members of the Korean National Assembly that many Koreans perceive as unfair. These privileges include a comparatively high salary and constitutional protections from arrest, despite rampant corruption in the legislative body. The popular perception is that assembly members receive exorbitant pay to do nothing. A 2019 survey showed that only 2.4 percent of people trust the legislature, and a 2018 survey showed 79 percent of people are opposed to increasing the number of assembly members, even in the context of electoral reform. This distrust in the legislature is consistent across gender, age, and political affiliation.
In order for electoral reform to enhance Korean democracy, it must address the factors that make the Korean people distrust its legislative branch. The Quasi MMP law did not do that. Because of the “trial run” element of the Quasi MMP law, conservatives have called it a “bizarre” law that was created “only for the benefit of specific political groups.” The UFP views the law as an existential threat, and some of its members are already skirting the rules to their advantage: In early February, UFP members created the Future Korea Party (FKP), whose sole purpose is to urge voters to vote for the UFP candidate on the geographic ballot and for the FKP on the proportional ballot. After the election when the FKP gains proportional representatives, it would merge again with the UFP in order to secure more seats in the assembly. Liberals view the FKP as a sneaky attempt to subvert the system, further eroding trust in the legislature, while conservatives view this as a necessary measure to prevent control of the government from falling into the hands of “pro-North Korean leftists.” In response, liberals have created the Open Democratic Party in order to effectively compete against the FKP for proportional representatives.
As a result of such distrust in politicians, many do not believe that this process will be any more democratic than the original system. The proportional representatives themselves are still chosen in a highly undemocratic manner by the party elite, who are the very politicians that Koreans most distrust. What’s more, Quasi MMP maintains the system in which 47 of 300 legislators are not directly elected by the people but rather in a closed room of party members.
To make matters worse, the Democratic Party agreed to this electoral reform partly in order to pass another unrelated (but controversial) bill. The bill would institute a separate agency to investigate and prosecute crimes of top government officials whose staff would be appointed by the current Democratic president. Expectedly, conservatives have called this a scheme to get as many liberals in positions of power as possible and condemned this trade of support for bills as “defrauding the Korean people.” It’s no wonder the people distrust the legislature when the parties treat the legislative process as a series of political transactions.
Altogether, it’s unlikely that the new Quasi MMP system does anything to address fears of an undemocratic system. When public trust in the legislature is near nonexistent, any reforms to the system intended to make it more democratic must directly confront the causes of public distrust. What’s the point of trying to build a more representative legislature if the people hate and distrust the legislators? Rather than being an actual solution to create a more democratic election process, this bill has become a shining representation of why South Koreans are wary of politicians. Even after the April elections, electoral reform will likely be the subject of partisan bickering for years to come.
Illustration: Katie Fliegel ’21
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of the Brown Political Review magazine.