Conditions for a Strong Government

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Conditions for a Strong Government

Using the phrase "strong government" requires caution because it can be interpreted in two contradictory ways. On the one hand, a strong government can refer to one that effectively solves problems in politics, the economy and society by taking the people''s wishes into account. In this case, a strong government would be compatible with democracy. On the other hand, a strong government can mean one that uncompromisingly overpowers its dissidents to accomplish its objectives. In this case, a strong government would be the antithesis of democracy.

In his New Year''s press conference, President Kim Dae-jung emphasized his goal of creating a strong government. Since he also talked about its being democratic, Mr. Kim''s stated goal might lie in creating a strong government conforming to democracy. While he said a strong government is not one that wields authoritarian power but observes democratic procedures and solves problems through dialogue and compromises, the strong government Mr. Kim is hoping to build might aspire to democratic aspects.

Regrettably, the majority of the people are not taking Mr. Kim''s professed goals in good faith. Many are skeptical of his good intentions and believe what he really meant was to further pressure the opposition and win a greater initiative in state administration.

The opposition lawmakers or their supporters are not alone in having suspicions. Many ordinary citizens and moderate intellectuals ardently hoping to see mature democracy being practiced in the nation became worried after hearing Mr. Kim''s goal at the news conference.

We cannot blame the naysayers for being narrow-minded and taking issue by distorting the true intentions of Mr. Kim. Under the current circumstances, it is natural to question whether he truly meant a strong government in the sense of democratically resolving the pending issues of the state.

The administration is in a critical situation today. It is facing rising criticism for the defection of couple of lawmakers of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party to the splinter United Liberal Democrats and for conducting biased investigations into the National Security Planning Agency''s diversion of its money to finance the then-ruling party''s parliamentary campaign in 1996. Controversy is also mounting over the government''s real motives for suddenly calling for press reforms.

When the president calls for a strong government under these circumstances, it is natural to suspect a design intended at taking the initiative in state administration by disregarding positions and opinions different from his own to accomplish his goals.

If the public skepticism of Mr. Kim''s bona fides is a misunderstanding, then it must be cleared. As long as the misunderstanding ?if it is indeed a misunderstanding ?remains, the public will not support his efforts to build a strong government.

Mr. Kim has to try hard to clear the misunderstanding by persuading skeptics. He has to convince the opposition and the public that he intends to pursue a strong government in a democratic way of effectively solving the accumulated problems by engaging in dialogue and seeking common grounds among different views. But his persuasion should not begin and end merely with a rhetorical appeal to the public to trust his words.

The misunderstanding can be cleared and the public persuaded only if he implements politics aimed at coexistence. He has to take specific actions to show that ensuring the political sector and the entire society''s survival by having the ruling party meet the opposition halfway is his intended way of building a strong but democratic government.

To achieve this goal, it is necessary to discard any notion of gaining an upper hand in administering the state. Mr. Kim is not alone at the center of state administration. The National Assembly occupies the other half of the central axis.

It is a well-known but often overlooked fact that the constitution of Korea is based on the principles of the president and the National Assembly maintaining a balance of power, but holding each other in check at the same time.

The president has a responsibility before the people who elected him to office. National Assembly members, elected through general elections, have just as much responsibility before the people. The Constitution adopts a presidential system but does not proclaim one exclusively centered on the president.

The president alone cannot create a strong government at his initiative under this constitutional system; it is possible only based on parliamentary cooperation. This is particularly true considering the current ruling party''s lack of a parliamentary majority.

Political coexistence is not easily achieved, of course. Mr. Kim could find it difficult to put up with the opposition''s lack of cooperation on the floor. He could see no problems in forcibly cracking down on the opposition if it opposes the administration at every turn, just for the sake of opposing.

Once Mr. Kim discards the idea that he is infallible, however, he will realize the differences between his views and those of his opponents do not necessarily come from the goal of confronting him or undermining his presidency. This realization is essential for creating a strong, democratic government.

The writer Lim Seong-ho is a professor of political science at Kyung Hee University.
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