If a first-term National Assemblyman is banned from running for reelection because of his wife’s illegal campaigning for him, what should he do? He may try to complete his tenure honorably with exemplary legislative activities and prepare to return to his original profession. Rep. Kim Choong-hwan of the Grand National Party had a different idea; he decided to rewrite the law with the support of sympathetic lawmakers from both ruling and opposition parties.
The draft revision bill to the election law signed by Rep. Kim and 20 other Assembly members (five withdrew later) provides that an elected lawmaker loses his or her seat in the event of being levied a fine of 3 million won or more for illegal campaigning. The current statute disqualifies Assembly members if they are given 1 million won in fines. In the case of a candidate’s spouse or other family members, the minimum levy for disqualification of an elected lawmaker will be raised to 7 million won from the present 3 million.
If Rep. Kim’s revision passes the Assembly, it will be harder to disqualify lawmakers for their own election law violations or those of their families. Quite a few lawmakers have been ousted with fines between 1 million won and 3 million won for illegal campaigns. Rep. Kim argues that the electorate’s choice should not be denied by individual judges’ arbitrary judgments on the amounts of fines ― and many of his colleagues seem to concur.
Rep. Kim’s wife was fined 5 million won in 2009 for giving boxes of dry anchovies to a number of residents in his constituency. She was later pardoned but the court sentence had the effect of disqualifying her husband for running in the 2012 elections.
The Kim Choong-hwan revision is not the only legislative action of incumbent lawmakers to make their Assembly membership safer and financially more comfortable. The Assembly’s Public Administration and Security Committee passed a bill to legalize donations to lawmakers by individual members of interest groups last month, but the bill was scrapped after it received strong criticism from civic circles. The bill was drafted when six lawmakers were being investigated for accepting donations from members of the national security guards association.
Soon afterwards, the National Election Commission prepared a revision bill to the election law to the effect of reviving political donations to political parties by business companies and social organizations. Interest groups’ donations to parties and individual politicians were banned in sweeping political reform measures in 2004 endorsed by all parties. Parties must be encouraged by the election watchdog’s move which we believe resulted from official or unofficial communications between them.
Since the 2004 reforms, parties receive huge amounts of subsidies in proportion to their Assembly seats to make up for the discontinued donations from businesses and interest groups. Individual politicians have their legitimate expenses in election campaigns reimbursed by the election commission while individual donors also get tax deductions for their political contributions. All election posters and handouts are prepared by the commission.
Thus, hundreds of billions of won in taxpayers’ money is being funneled into political parties and their members’ election campaigns annually to ensure clean democratic politics. If our lawmakers and parties are still thirsty of more funds, we cannot but suspect that they need them to distribute anchovy boxes or other gifts to voters. And if they believe they can turn the clock back by the exercise of their legislative authority, voters will have to show their own power through the elections every four years.