On April 15, 2020, the 21st general election of the Republic of Korea was held. The election had the highest voter turnout in 28 years at 66.2 percent, in spite of the unusual situation of voting while taking preventive measures against the Coronavirus 2019 pandemic. In various respects, the election became a popular topic for debate, with voices of criticism being raised towards the effectiveness of the revised Public Official Election Act. The National Assembly (NA) revised the election law last December, and this election was the first election to reflect the change. This article examines the issues surrounding the revised election law, breaking down what kind of system the Quasi Mixed-Member Proportional Representation system is, the reason behind its enactment, and the remaining controversies.
Background of Introducing the New Election System?
On December 27, 2019, the Public Official Election Act was revised and the introduction of a “Quasi Mixed-Member Proportional Representation System”, referred to as quasi-proportional representation system was scheduled to take effect from the 21st general elections in 2020. It was a bill that revised measures to elect proportional representatives, which corresponds to 47 of the total 300 parliamentary seats. The quasi-proportional representation system allocates the number of parliamentary seats to reflect 50 percent of the votes cast by proportional representation parties. The previous proportional representation system (the ratio of votes cast by proportional representatives × political parties) adopted independent allocations of proportional representation seats. Quasi-proportional representation system, on the other hand, maintains 47 proportional representation seats but applies a linked cap of only 30 seats out of 47. The remaining 17 seats follow the previous proportional representation system. The main purpose of the introduction is to enable minor parties to join Parliament for its diversity and to reduce the number of meaningless votes, such as those that occurred in the 2016 20th general elections, where 50. 3 percent of the total votes was wasted. The NA was criticized for failing to reflect public sentiment — for not reflecting the opinions of voters who voted for a probable candidate who did not get elected. Therefore, the main purpose of the revision is to create a NA that reflects public sentiment.
Sparking Controversy: Trick Politics by the Major Parties
The revision was praised at first in that it could enhance the parliamentary representation of minor parties and give them a chance to keep the major parties in check. But the creation of a satellite party that emerged as a political strategy of major parties has sparked controversy over the abuse of the electoral system. The United Future Party founded the satellite party the Future Korea Party. To counteract, the Democratic Party created the Open Democratic Party as well. And the National Election Commission (NEC) approved them to register second political parties. The creation of the satellite parties has defeated the initial purpose of advancing entry of the minor parties into the NA. It gave 19 seats for the Future Korea Party, 17 for the Citizens’ Party and only the remaining 11 seats were reserved for minor parties. Due to this drawback of the quasiproportional representation system, what the public faced at the poll was a long – 48.1 centimeter ballot and a NA dominated by giant parties. Oh Il-hwan, a Professor of the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Hanyang University, spoke about the quasi-proportional representation system: It unexpectedly led to the emergence of satellite parties, which went against the initial purpose of its introduction. In order to revive the original purpose of the proportional representation system, it is essential to prepare a legal method that can prohibit the appearance of satellite parties. He expressed a negative opinion about the impact of the satellite parties’ emergence on voters. He said, “Votes cast by voters originally signify a distinction between a major party and a satellite party. Thus, from the point of view of voters who voted for a satellite party, they have the perception that their vote was distorted in that the party was ordered by the original party. In the end, the emergence of satellite parties can be seen as impediments to political development, given that voters will have the perception that they have been played by trick politics.” In addition, he explained that this proportional representation system is likely to be abolished, as it has been criticized by the public for causing the opposite of what was intended upon its introduction. He advises that it is desirable to revert to the previous system of proportional representation for a while.
Allowing 18-year-olds to Cast Ballots in Elections
Another issue with the revised Public Official Election Act is the lowering of the minimum age to vote to 18. In fact, there has been a change of consciousness about teenagers’ ability to cast proper political votes. After a considerable number of discussions, teenagers born before April 16, 2002 could exercise their voting rights in the 2020 election. However, contrary to the proponents’ opinions that it can boost youth policies and increase interest in politics, there is a concern about teens’ autonomous participation. Teenagers can be coerced into vote according to others’ political opinions — their parents or teachers at school. In full consideration of these concerns, efforts are being made to broaden youth participation and awareness in politics, such as through election education. Despite the voices of criticism, the lowered age of eligibility is interpreted by many experts as an attempt to expand political equality.
The Prospect of the Proportional Representation System?
The reformation of the Parliamentary electoral system proposed by the Special Committee for Political Reform in April 2019 aimed to increase the proportionality of the current electoral system and to allow members of the NA to be elected from the sidelines of political parties. This was expected to lay the foundation of a multi-party system in Korea. However, as Professor Oh noted, it seems that Korea’s political culture has yet to reach a level that can accommodate a multi-party system. Therefore, for the time being, it is desirable to adopt another type of system. Many experts predict that the proportional representation system will revert to the previous method. In a multi-party system country, there is the advantage of attracting various values of civil society and voices of public opinion to the NA. But if the major party plays a trick such as the creation of a satellite party, we will not be able to access this diversity.