Balloting starts at 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday for the by-elections in three parliamentary districts, one gubernatorial district and several districts for municipal mayors. Though the electoral districts are small in number, the polls have good reason to draw more attention than they would normally deserve.
First of all, public attention will focus on the vote in the Bundang B district in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, as it will undoubtedly have a substantial impact on the presidential election next year. Sohn Hak-kyu, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, who has presidential ambitions, is putting his political future on the line in the wealthy district, which has traditionally elected conservative candidates to the National Assembly.
Sohn says he will hold himself “unlimitedly responsible” for the outcome. As he says, there will not be much he can do as a politician, should voters withhold their support for his call for change. Even so, the vote in Bundang B, together with the polls in the other districts, can hardly be conceived as a mid-term evaluation for President Lee Myung-bak’s administration as Sohn claims.
Another district of great concern to the public is one in South Gyeongsang Province ― the home of the late President Roh Moo-hyun. A hitherto little known candidate from a minor party claiming Roh’s legacy, who defeated one from the Democratic Party in a pre-election contest and, by doing so, won the main opposition party’s support, is battling a former provincial governor running on the ruling Grand National Party’s ticket.
Then comes the gubernatorial by-election in Gangwon Province, in which two former heads of the MBC broadcasting company are running against each other. Of less concern is one parliamentary district in South Jeolla Province ― a district that has traditionally elected candidates from the Democratic Party. This time, however, the opposition party has abstained from fielding its own candidate ― a move designed to consolidate an alliance among opposition forces.
Though the by-elections may not be a mid-term evaluation, the electorate may regard them as a bellwether for the 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections. No wonder the rival parties have taken much of the electioneering from the candidates and put a national spin on local issues. With competition heating up in the process, however, candidates and their supporters have muddied the campaigns by breaching election-related laws.
One case in point is the allegation that the ruling party’s gubernatorial candidate breached the law when 29 of his paid, but unregistered, campaign staffers working in the guise of volunteers made telephone calls to voters to drum up support. He offered a lame excuse when he claimed he had no connection to the campaign workers.
Another case involved a government official allegedly working for Rep. Lee Jae-oh of the ruling party, who doubles a member of the Cabinet. The official allegedly ignored the statutory requirement of political neutrality demanded of all government employees and got himself involved in the ruling party candidate’s campaign in South Gyeongsang Province.
Of course, there are law-breaching cases involving opposition politicians as well, one of whom allegedly sent false text messages to voters. Another opposition politician is accused of providing entertainment to voters. But charges brought against them may not be as serious as those leveled against their counterparts from the ruling party. Still, the National Election Commission and law-enforcement agencies will have to delve into the cases involving opposition candidates as well as those involving ruling party candidates.
No less important than the efforts to clean up the mess is the drive to raise the voter turnout, which has been well below the 30 percent level at most previous by-elections. It would be a sign of system failure for a candidate to get himself elected by winning slightly more than 10 percent of the total eligible voters, as some did in the past