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(News Focus) Widening bribery scandal engulfs political parties before polls

All Headlines 15:36 January 10, 2012

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Jan. 10 (Yonhap) -- An unfolding bribery scandal in the ruling party has battered South Korea's political circles ahead of April's general elections as it set off a series of whistleblowing claims on the long-running practice of vote-buying in party leadership contests not only in the ruling camp, but also in the opposition party as well.

Grand National Party lawmaker Koh Seung-duk alleged Monday that Rep. Park Hee-tae, who is now parliamentary speaker, had envelopes of 3 million won (US$2,600) delivered to his office before the party elected him a new leader in 2008. Koh also hinted that other lawmakers and party members might have been offered bribes during the campaign.

While prosecutors are widening their investigation into Koh's claim, Rep. Cho Jun-hyuk raised similar allegations regarding the GNP leadership contest in 2010. Cho said the party's leadership contests have been contaminated with nepotism and bribes.

"The essence of the bribery is about their own turf struggle between politicians, which is nothing to do with the lives of ordinary people," reform-minded GNP lawmaker Kwon Young-jin wrote on his Twitter.

There have been previous rumors some candidates tried to bribe fellow members to win party contests, often affected by nepotism and factional conflicts, but it is the first time that lawmakers have raised specific allegations about internal bribery.

Opposition lawmakers are not free of vote-buying attempts during leadership election campaigns.

The main opposition Democratic Unified Party (DUP) also began conducting its own investigation into allegations that some candidates have provided money to local branch representatives in the campaign in the ongoing election contest. The party plans to hold a national convention to pick a new chief on Sunday.

"If there are circumstances that a candidate has provided money to affect the election, the party has to disqualify the alleged candidate," said Lee Yong-sup, the party's interim leader.

Public distrust of existing political parties is already high over their corruption and ineffective politicking, but political watchers say this scandal can severely disrupt established politicians.

"While this is a good chance to reform old politics, it is certainly bad news to politicians preparing their campaigns," said Koh Seung-duk, a Seoul-based political analyst.

Wary of negative image from the legislative chief coming under investigation in regard to bribery, both ruling and opposition lawmaker are pressing National Assembly Speaker Park, formerly affiliated with the GNP, to step down from his post.

"Even though Park doesn't bear legal responsibility, (the bribery allegations) have caused irreparable damage to him politically and ethically," the GNP's emergency member Lee Sang-don said in a radio interview, calling for his resignation.

Park, who is now in Japan as part of his Asia trip, denied allegations against him, but told reporters that he will cooperate with the prosecution's investigation upon his arrival on Jan. 18.

If summoned, it will be the first time for the incumbent Assembly speaker to appear before prosecutors for questioning.

The bribery allegations have revived memories of massive cash donations delivered by vehicles during the 2002 presidential election that drove lawmakers to adopt a tough political fund law.

Ahead of the 2004 general elections, the widespread illegal donations revealed by prosecutors shocked the nation, as big business groups, including LG, Hyundai, SK and Samsung, were discovered to have delivered massive cash gifts to politicians.

In a desperate effort to revive politicians' image, the ruling and opposition lawmakers passed a tough election law that bans donations from corporations and organizations, the biggest source of money for costly election campaigns.

The revised law was aimed at breaking ties between politicians and businessmen with a big hand and encouraging voters to voluntarily make small contributions to politicians they support.

Political watchers say uncovering dirty politics could serve as a wake-up call for politicians to run clean campaigns in April and the ensuing presidential race in December.

"The 2002 presidential campaign scandal sparked lawmakers to pass the tough political donation law, which set a higher ethical standard for politicians," said Shin Yul, a politics professor at Seoul's Myeongji University. "I hope political parties can use this incident to root out corruption within their parties and set a fair standard to pick a new leader and candidates."

In light of unfolding allegations surrounding the money-ridden elections, fresh suspicions surfaced regarding proportional seats whose murky process has come under fire from voters after a series of bribery allegations broke out during the electoral processes in past elections.

Rev. In Myung-jin, who chaired the GNP's ethics committee in 2008, last week said he had heard rumors that some politicians bought their representatives seats with money.

Officials at the Seoul Central Prosecutors' Office said they are considering widening their investigation into all three national conventions since President Lee Myung-bak took office in early 2008, as well as party members involved in the picking of proportional representatives.

To revamp its old-fashioned, corrupt image, the GNP Tuesday said it will exclude those embroiled in the bribery scandal from the list of nominees for the April vote and entrust the party's leadership election to the nation's election watchdog in the future to prevent such irregularities in the campaigns.

"The whole process of the national convention needs to be put under close watch to prevent bribes from being offered," said a senior GNP official, noting the party will negotiate the matter with opposition parties.

For the National Election Commission to take over a party's election, the current political party law needs to be revised in the parliament.


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