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Foreign residents left on sidelines in mayoral by-elections

Foreign residents participate in a mock poll at Seoul Station organized by an election office in Seoul in this May 31, 2018 photo, ahead of the nationwide local elections which were held three days later. Korea Times file
Foreign residents participate in a mock poll at Seoul Station organized by an election office in Seoul in this May 31, 2018 photo, ahead of the nationwide local elections which were held three days later. Korea Times file

By Lee Hyo-jin

Eligible immigrant voters in the upcoming Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections who are not fluent in Korean are being sidelined due to the absence of translated information on the candidates and voting procedures.

Following the revision to the Public Official Election Act in August 2005, foreign nationals who had stayed in the country for over three years after obtaining permanent residency were given the right to vote in local elections. The upcoming Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections set for April 7 will be the fifth time they will be able to exercise their voting rights.

However, the National Election Commission (NEC) and the local governments in Seoul and Busan are not providing information on the candidates and their pledges as well as voting procedures in multiple languages, although they have done so in past local elections. Their main excuse is that these are by-elections, not regular ones.

Some pointed out that this may limit access to information for immigrants, virtually violating their voting rights or at a minimum creating an information gap among voters.

Wang Ji-yeon, head of the Migrant Women's Association in Korea, said, "It is regretful that the authorities decided not to translate election-related handouts or voting papers into foreign languages, probably due to a lack of time or resources."

Out of concern that this may lead to low participation by foreign voters, the association is holding campaigns to encourage immigrants to vote by making videos on the voting process translated into 10 different languages.

Kim Yae-jin, a member of the multicultural family support committee under the Korean Bar Association, said, "The level of Korean language proficiency differs among foreigners with permanent residency. Therefore, related information should be provided in several languages such as English or Chinese to guarantee their right to vote as well as political activity."

The NEC explained that relevant laws such as the Public Official Election Act does not stipulate that information on local elections must be translated into foreign languages.

It belatedly posted an English notice about the voting process on the NEC website, Tuesday, but other language services are unavailable. Also, each candidate's policy promises are provided only in English.

"It is up to the candidates whether they will make translated versions (of their policy promise leaflets)," an NEC official said.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government, for its part, said it was not providing the foreign language service as there was no request from the election authorities.

"The NEC has not requested us to translate the information for the Seoul mayoral by-election. Also, as over half of the eligible immigrant voters in Seoul are ethnic Korean Chinese who generally show high proficiency in Korean, we did not see the necessity for translation services," said an official at the city office's foreign residents department.

According to the NEC, a total of 42,246 foreign nationals are eligible to vote this time. Among them, 38,126 are in Seoul and 2,922 are in Busan, with the remainder in other small cities and counties where by-elections are also being held. Although the commission does not have exact data on the nationality of the foreign voters, many of them will be Chinese, considering that about half of registered foreigners in Seoul are Chinese nationals.

Noting this, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea is wooing immigrant voters in Seoul to gain as many votes as possible amid a situation where its candidate Park Young-sun is falling behind her rival, Oh Se-hoon of the main opposition People Power Party.

Park recently invited the former head of the Chinese residents' association in Korea to an election campaign event held in Seodaemun District, appealing for support from the Chinese community.



이효진 lhj@koreatimes.co.kr


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