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(News Focus) Election reform bill faces uphill battle for parliamentary passage

Politics 10:31 April 24, 2019

By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, April 24 (Yonhap) -- The ruling Democratic Party (DP) and three minor parties have managed to agree to fast-track an election reform bill, but the outlook for its parliamentary passage remains murky, experts said Wednesday.

A bill to overhaul the parliamentary election system is one of the contentious measures that the four parties agreed Monday to fast-track this week in a package deal that excludes the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP).

The deal includes the establishment of a unit to investigate alleged corruption by high-ranking government officials and enhancing the police's authority to conduct probes.

The electoral reform bill, meanwhile, would enable the adoption of a mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation system in which parliamentary seats are tied to the percentage of voters' support for different parties.

Hong Young-pyo (2nd from R), floor leader of the ruling Democratic Party, and his counterparts from three minor opposition parties hold a press briefing at the National Assembly on April 22, 2019, on their agreement to fast-track key bills. (Yonhap)

"The revision of the election law is necessary, given the need to reflect voters' diverse voices. Strengthening a proportional representation system is an inevitable trend," Yu Yong-hwa, a political analyst, said.

Debate over election reform has gained traction in recent months as minor parties are seeking to increase their presence ahead of general elections set for April 2020.

It is a long-overdue issue here as the current winner-takes-all district scheme falls short of representing the diversity of voter opinion.

The existing single-member district system has contributed to advancing South Korea's democracy, but it has also generated many dead votes and has mostly benefited the larger parties, aggravating deeply rooted regionalism.

Under the parties' latest deal, the total number of parliamentary seats will be fixed at 300, but the number of proportional representation seats will rise to 75 from the current 47.

The three minor parties initially wanted a stricter implementation of the MMP system, under which the total parliamentary seats would increase to 330, including 110 proportional posts.

But they have finally agreed to a less rigorous form of MMP and accepted the ruling DP's proposal as they want the new election law to be applied to the 2020 elections.

The four parties chose a fast-track mechanism to press ahead with their respective agendas in the form of the package deal. But experts have said the parliamentary passage of the election reform bill faces an uphill battle.

The National Assembly can designate a bill that fails to get bipartisan support for a long period as a fast-track proposal if three-fifths of lawmakers in a parliamentary committee approve the move. This is designed to prevent a certain proposal from remaining pending too long.

Once a bill is put on a fast track, it can be put to a vote at a plenary session without deliberation or approval by the relevant committees.

But if political parties fail to reach a bipartisan agreement, the fast-track bill could be voted on after no more than 330 days have passed following its designation. Some call the mechanism a "slow-track" course, given that it could protract the process.

The main opposition LKP's strong objection to the other parties' move remains the main hurdle for the bill's passage.

Lawmakers of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party hold a rally in front of the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae on April 23, 2019, to protest four other parties' agreement on fast-tracking key bills. (Yonhap)

In the 300-member assembly, the ruling DP holds 128 seats, with the LKP holding 114 and minor opposition parties and independents accounting for the other 58.

The conservative LKP denounced the move as a political gambit, pledging to mobilize every means to stop the fast-track bid.

The political burden weighs heavier on the DP as national election law has been always revised through bipartisan agreement. Proceeding with the law revision without the main opposition party's support could be difficult.

Even if the bill is put to a vote at a plenary session, there is a chance of the proposal being voted down due to complaints from some lawmakers in the liberal bloc whose seats could be taken away under the proposed MMP system.

Merging or adjusting districts will be inevitable under MMP as the number of directly elected seats will fall in response to a rise in proportional posts. Some think that at least 28 constituencies could undergo such changes.

"It would be inevitable to see heightened political tensions down the road. As the National Assembly will soon gear up for the 2020 elections, the passage of key bills on people's livelihoods will likely take a back seat," Ko Jin-dong, a political analyst, said.

Analyst Yu stressed that the DP should pump up its efforts to elicit cooperation from the LKP for a compromise in a bid to help back up the reform drive of the liberal Moon Jae-in government.


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