The 13-day official campaign for the June 13 local elections is in full swing. Candidates and campaigners in colorful uniforms and banners and posters are now seen everywhere in the streets. But fewer voters seem interested in the upcoming elections than in the past.
There are some reasons for the relatively high voter indifference. The first one is that – for now -- the ruling Democratic Party of Korea is expected to score a resounding victory.
The quadrennial local elections and the 12 parliamentary by-elections being held at the same time are the first major polls to be contested since President Moon Jae-in took office in May last year. The results of elections like these ones are often regarded as a public verdict on the performance of the president.
In that sense, Moon and his ruling party have a clear upper hand. The conservative opposition -- devastated by the ouster of Park Geun-hye and the incarceration of another conservative former leader Lee Myung-bak -- has yet to recover.
Besides, the recent developments regarding North Korea -- including the two inter-Korean summits and Moon’s hitherto successful efforts to broker a denuclearization deal between the US and the North -- are also a big plus to Moon’s liberal government and ruling party.
Moon’s approval ratings are running between 70-80 percent and the ruling party’s popularity hovers over 50 percent, compared with roughly 10 percent for the main opposition Liberty Korea Party.
This trend is manifesting itself in many races. For instance, a recent public opinion survey found that Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon of the ruling party, with 46.9 percent support, is far ahead of his two major rivals – Ahn Cheol-soo of the Bareunmirae Party with 20.6 percent and Kim Moon-soo of the Liberty Korea Party with 12.9 percent.
The ruling party’s dominance is so overwhelming that its candidates are also favored to take over a sizable number of seats in the traditionally conservative southeastern provinces. It shows that many voters tend to support candidates based on their party affiliations.
All this may be good news for Moon and the Democratic Party. But voters basing their choices on party affiliation rather than the qualities of the individual candidates is never politically healthy, nor is it good for the sound development of local government.
Basically, local elections should be separated from presidential and national politics. The upcoming polls should serve to select people who will represent us at the gubernatorial and mayoral offices and local assemblies and councils. The most important criteria should be their individual experience, competence, policy vision and ethical standards.
Take a look at the morality and integrity. There are a number of candidates who should not be allowed to take any elected office in the first place. No fewer than 27 of the 71 candidates for the gubernatorial and mayoral seats in the nation’s 17 provinces and large cities have criminal records.
It is preposterous that there is a man with as many as 15 criminal offenses to his name who seeks a local council seat. Out of the total of 9,316 candidates, many have evaded taxes, with the most notorious case involving a man who had more than 600 million won ($557,000) in unpaid taxes. It is voters’ right and duty to remove these candidates.
Assessing the soundness and practicality of candidates’ election promises is no less important. Voters ought to scrutinize all candidates’ election platforms, many of which include pork-barrel projects and other populist proposals.
A good example is the competition among candidates to promise economic cooperation programs with North Korea. The election will come shortly after the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and many candidates -- ruling and opposition alike -- are trying to ride the wave of the reconciliatory mood.
One imaginative candidate proposed opening a joint maritime fishery market in the West Sea which has often been the scene of violent naval clashes between the two Koreas. Another suggested establishment of a special joint economic zone alongside the border and there is one who proposed trade of the South’s farm products with the North’s minerals.
Some of these may be put into force and give benefits to both sides in the long run, but many such projects are premature as they require long preparations and more importantly, should be preceded by a considerable improvement in inter-Korean relations.
It is not North Korea but issues in their local communities -- from taxes and business to education to environment and quality of life -- that the candidates should deliver on. That’s why local elections are called the basis of grassroots democracy.