Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Political apathy leads to record-low voter turnout

Political apathy leads to record-low voter turnout

By Shin Hae-in
SEOUL, April 9 (Yonhap) -- Voter apathy and a lack of policy debate between rival parties appear to have caused a record-low turnout for Wednesday's parliamentary elections, political pundits said.

Voter turnout for South Korea's quadrennial elections hit a record-low 46 percent, according to the election watchdog's early estimate, down 14.6 percentage points from the 2004 elections and 11.2 percent from the elections in 2000.

President Lee Myung-bak's conservative party was forecast to have secured a solid majority of over 160 seats in the 299-member National Assembly, according to exit polls, benefiting from lackluster voter participation.

The liberal main opposition party, meanwhile, saw a crushing defeat, gaining an estimated 80 seats, well below their target of 100.

A lower turnout generally benefits the conservative party, while liberal parties benefit from a higher turnout resulting from participation of largely progressive younger voters.

With a series of events leading up to the elections -- such as factional feuding during parties' nomination of their parliamentary candidates -- leaving overall voters with little motivation to vote, voters in their 20s and 30s appear to be the most susceptible to political apathy, experts said.

"The main cause of voter apathy is the overall public distrust of parties," said Kim Won-kyun of polling group Research and Research. "Voters, especially those in their 20s to early 30s, are running out of reasons to take the trouble of going to polling stations when they are not even interested in which party wins."
Indeed, voters complained of an absence of proper policy showdowns between different parties during the official campaign period.

"As far as I can see, there was basically no difference in policies between the liberal and the conservative candidates," said 24-year-old college student Yoon Mi-joo. "Candidates lacked time to properly advertise themselves and differentiate pledges from their rivals as parties took so much time in nominating their candidates."
"If I could cast a blank ballot, I would've gladly gone to the polling station," said internet user jacky2002 on a local web portal. "I thought it would be better to stay home rather than vote for some candidate I don't even know, let alone like."
Experts point out the need of giving voters enough decision-making time, via a sufficient campaigning spell for candidates and parties.

"A law should be enacted obliging parties to finish their nominations at least three months ahead of elections, to give voters enough time to get to know the parties and their candidates," Prof. Kim Hyung-joo of Myungji University said.

Some experts attributed the low turnout to the main opposition United Democratic Party's failure to undermine the overwhelming popularity of the ruling Grand National Party, achieved on the back of President Lee's landslide win in last year's presidential election.

"The main opposition party failed to put up a good fight with the ruling party," said political analyst Kim Myung-min. "The lack of disputable issues and policy rivalry made the election an obvious game, keeping voters away to the benefit of the ruling party."
In an unprecedented move to lure more voters to cast their ballots, the National Election Commission had even offered discounts to those who vote on the entry fees of 1,400 national cultural facilities.

South Korea is the first country to offer an incentive to voters, with about 20 countries instead imposing penalties on those who do not vote.

"I don't think the policy to offer incentives will be that effective," said political analyst Yoon Kyung-joo. "The election watchdog should seriously consider imposing penalties instead, as casting a ballot is a citizen's obligation."
Some experts attributed the trend to the country's changing political environment, pointing out that voter apathy is common in developed countries.

Voter turnout has been steadily declining over the years, from 84.6 percent in the 1985 parliamentary elections, to 75.8 percent, 71.9 percent and 63.9 percent in most recent polls.

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