Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Overseas Koreans get voting rights

The Korea Herald (February 6, 2009)

"Some problems in electoral procedures may inevitably occur, such as how to handle electoral irregularities. But all other nations went through such things, and I believe, after some period of trial and error, we can overcome them," Kim said.

Rival parties have begun efforts to court their potential voters.

The ruling Grand National Party launched a "U.S. GNP forum" in Los Angeles last month. The party also plans to establish another in Canada as early as this month, officials said.

The main opposition Democratic Party is seeking to establish an overseas government agency dedicated to enhancing the legal status of Korean nationals abroad.

In 1972, President Park Chung-hee stripped overseas Koreans of the right to participate in domestic elections, as many of them opposed his dictatorship.

How many people will be affected?

According to the National Election Commission, an estimated 3 million Koreans live in foreign countries - 1.45 million as permanent residents and 1.55 as temporary residents.

The NEC estimates the number of eligible voters aged 19 or more is about 2.4 million, or 80 percent of the total. In parliamentary elections, 2.4 million votes would be enough to win at least 10 proportional representation seats in the 299-member legislature, analysts presume.

Based on its internal survey, about 1.67 million people among them are expected to register with the NEC. Some 1.34 million are expected to actually vote, the NEC projected.

The figure is also significant, considering the slim margins between major candidates in past presidential elections. Former President Kim Dae-jung beat then Grand National Party chairman Lee Hoi-chang by a margin of 390,000 votes in 1997 while former President Roh Moo-hyun defeated Lee Hoi-chang by a margin of 570,000 votes in 2002.

Voting methods

Voting rights will be given for presidential elections and the proportional representation section of parliamentary elections.

Those with permanent foreign residency will not be allowed to cast ballots in elections for each electoral district as it is hard to identify which constituency an overseas Korean belongs to.

But Koreans with overseas residence will be able to vote in the country, if they register temporary residence here. This means they will be able to vote in the upcoming parliamentary by-elections slated for April 29 this year.

Temporary overseas Korean residents who have registered residency here can cast absentee votes.

All will cast their ballots in Korean embassies and consulates abroad rather than sending their votes by mail to avoid possible vote fraud.

Eligible voters must file an application with the National Election Commission via Korean missions from 150 days to 60 days before the election day.

Election campaigns will be conducted through candidates' or parties' internet homepages; speeches and advertisements via satellite broadcasting; and telephone.

Detailed measures aimed at preventing vote rigging have yet to be finalized, officials said.

Which party will benefit more?

The major bone of contention was how to define "overseas Koreans" in terms of voting rights.

The GNP contended that suffrage had to be given to as many overseas Koreans as possible. Permanent residents abroad tend to be older, and are regarded as more conservative in their political views, which some believe would benefit the conservative ruling party.

The main opposition Democratic Party had maintained that suffrage should be expanded in steps, first only to temporary overseas residents, including students and overseas Korean employees.

As voter turnout is expected to be lower due to the complicated and time-consuming voting process, and there are those who left their native land with hard feelings against the elite class, it is hard to say that the move will favor the ruling party.

Concerns raised by experts

Opponents have argued that Koreans outside the country could have too much of an influence on local elections regarding representatives and issues inside the country, given the small margins that often determine the outcome of presidential and parliamentary elections.

"I feel doubtful that overseas Koreans who are politically away from the country can determine political destiny here," said Choi Young-jin, a politics professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.

"In terms of ethnicity, entitling them to vote here is meaningful. But voters here are members of a particular political community, all of whom are contemporarily based in the same location, the Korean Peninsula, and mull over issues facing that community. This issue needs to be treated apart from the ethnic standpoint."

"Strictly speaking, granting suffrage to overseas Koreans contradicts the principle of representative democracy. The suffrage is given to elect those who would work on behalf of us with people paying taxes," said Choi Han-soo, professor of political science at Konkuk University in Seoul.

But some showed different views.

"We are living in a globalized world where people frequently transcend national boundaries at a fast pace. Where people are geographically based is an irrelevant issue. It is something that is not in line with global standards," said Chung Dae-hwa, professor of political science at Sangji University in Wonju, Gangwon Province.

Some have voiced concern that in extreme cases, a situation in which voters in Korea refuse to accept an election result could take place.

Experts also point out that it is difficult to regulate electoral irregularities overseas as many Korean expatriates are not used to local election rules, and applying domestic election laws in foreign countries is difficult.

Monitoring illegal election campaigns, safely shipping ballots and a shortage of staffers who will manage the voting procedures on election day have been cited.

Some professors have highlighted the need to allow overseas Koreans to vote to elect lawmakers in each constituency.

"The bills divide overseas Koreans into two groups - those with permanent foreign residency and temporary residents. Though the court ruled the laws unconstitutional as they stipulate only those whose residency is registered can vote here, there appears to be another discriminatory element here," said Song Seok-won, politics professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.

"All Korean nationals should be treated equally. Running counter to the Constitution, the bills do not allow those with permanent residency to vote in (the constituency part of) general elections while temporary residents can," said Song.

Song added that although some say those with permanent residency should be treated differently as they don't fulfill taxation and military duty, such people comprise only a small fraction.

Some worry that the suffrage could hold back overseas Koreans from joining mainstream society where they live, as they become focused on politics of their native country rather than taking interest in their current communities.

Some also say that voting rights divide the Korean expatriate community along political lines.

Some also point out that limiting voting places only to overseas Korean missions could seriously harm voter turnout as only a few would bother to travel long distances to vote. They stressed the need to allow overseas Koreans to send their votes by mail or vote online, something many here oppose due to security concerns.

By Song Sang-ho


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