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SEOUL — Nov. 28 was a black day for local autonomy in South Korea. On that date a group of lawmakers introduced a bill in the National Assembly, aimed at abolishing the democratic election of lower-level mayors. The 42 lawmakers from different political parties who presented the bill argued that the financial situation of local administrations had deteriorated so much since the introduction of the popular vote that it was high time to reintroduce a system that appointed seasoned government bureaucrats to fill mayoral posts.

It is not a good sign when democratically elected politicians engage in a effort to rob the people of the right to elect their local leaders. Elections are the foundation of democracy.

The revisionist challenge at the National Assembly has provoked strong opposition at the local government level. Local mayors and their supporters have geared up to ward off the attacks that threaten their political and institutional existence.

While the promoters of the appointment system say they are concerned about the deteriorating financial situation of local governments and paint the mayors to be irresponsible spendthrifts, it is an open secret that the assault against democratic elections of mayors has a deeper political motive.

Prior to the introduction of popular mayoral elections, South Korea’s assemblymen were the undisputed political bosses in their constituencies. This privileged position is now in danger. Increasingly National Assembly members have to compete with local political leaders who have a popular mandate.

In some districts, the democratically elected heads of the local administration have become more popular (and therefore potentially more powerful) than local members of the National Assembly. Many mayors have their sights set on higher offices, including the National Assembly. Getting rid of the local politicians in an elegant manner has therefore been part of a political survival strategy for some members of Parliament.

The elected mayors are not sitting on their hands. One of their first actions in response to the political onslaught has been to concede to the public that, indeed, all is not perfect in their administrations.

One case in point is the elected head of the Sungdong-gu Ward office in Seoul, who in a widely publicized report admitted to many shortcomings. But the mayor hurries to add that these problems do not in any way justify the abolishment of popular elections: “We need and we accept criticism,” he says, “but we have to be patient. Local autonomy in (South) Korea is like a young plant, which needs nurturing to develop.”

Actually the president of the republic should be main guardian of the local mayors. In his much quoted inaugural speech two years ago, President Kim Dae Jung promised that “a large part of the power and the functions that have been concentrated in the central government will be transferred to local autonomous governments.” It would be difficult to rationalize the “government of the people” condoning the partial disenfranchisement of the people.

Unfortunately, local politics in South Korea are not appreciated by the people as an important democratic institution. “Eighty percent are not interested in district affairs,” says a local councilman from Seoul, who adds: “Only one out of 10 citizens participate in local affairs.”

Even more worrisome: Public interest in local affairs seems to be decreasing. One explanation may be found in the handling of local affairs in the South Korean media. While in Germany, for instance, local matters take center stage in all but the big national newspapers, the South Korean media hardly deal with local politics. According to a survey published recently, the citizens gather 70 percent of their information about local political developments from friends.

One way to raise the interest of the population in local affairs would be to encourage their involvement in decision-making processes. But the reality in most South Korean wards and districts is very different: “The local leaders just tell us what to do, there is hardly any discussion,” complained one citizen at a recent seminar in Seoul.

An additional problem is the political feebleness of local councils. While in the so-called advanced democracies local councils are run as mini-parliaments and enjoy considerable influence, South Korean local councils are toothless tigers. According to one account, the responsibilities of these bodies are limited to approving the local budget and auditing the local administration.

Difficult challenges lie ahead for South Korea’s local-autonomy system. To some degree it is up to the elected local authorities to fend off the attacks, and prove to the general public that the accusations against their institutions are being exaggerated for petty political purposes.

A crucial date in the campaign for the political and institutional survival of elected local mayors may be June 13, 2002, the prospective date of the next local elections. The best way to ward off efforts to abolish local elections would be a massive turnout at the polls.

Unfortunately, participation in past local elections has been depressingly low. If this does not change, it could be the last time the people get a chance to elect their local mayors.

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