[OUTLOOK] Constitutional Reform, Not Now

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[OUTLOOK] Constitutional Reform, Not Now

According to a recent poll, opposition leader Lee Hoi-chang, who was considered the strongest potential presidential candidate for the 2002 election, is now trailing the ruling party's hypothetical candidates. We should be glad that the forecasts on the next presidential election outcome are equivocal.

Like a closely contested sports game, politics is interesting when it is impossible to predict the winner until the vote count is over. A neck-to-neck race will give greater importance to each vote and politicians will work harder to win the public's support. But this applies only when the contenders observe the rules of the game and compete fairly. The public will not stand for it if they play foul or attempt to change the rules to upset the outcome at the last minute.

Discussions on a constitutional amendment to introduce a four-year two-term presidency and vice presidency are gaining momentum in the political sector. Not only can we take issue with this attempt to change the outcome of future elections by amending the constitution, but it is doubtful whether this American-style system will work in Korea.

Advocates of this system base their case on three reasons. First, they claim that a two-term presidency can prevent the president from becoming a lame duck too early and that the president can pursue responsible politics by being re-elected.

Second, they argue that the vice president can curb the president's powerful authority and step in when the president is unable to perform his duties. Regional animosity can be also eased by picking a running mate from a region different from that of the presidential candidate, according to the supporters.

Third, they believe that holding the presidential and general elections at the same intervals can help create an administration with a parliamentary majority, thus raising policy efficiency and reducing election expenses.

If only all our dreams could come true. But it is wishful thinking to believe current political problems will be lessened through constitutional amendment because the law, enforcement regulation, and operational rules hold greater sway over political results.

The demerits of the proposed constitutional revision outweigh its potential merits. First, a single-term president can execute policies based on personal convictions with historical evaluation in mind, not re-election. In a two-term presidency, the president tends to avoid implementing unpopular policies in order to be re-elected. This is why the U.S. president campaigns for re-election from the first day he is elected. And since there is no guarantee of winning re-election, the lame duck syndrome usually sets in halfway through the first term.

The goal of a political party is rising to power. Even without a re-election, the president tries to ensure policy success to help his or her party candidate win the coming presidential elections, which means responsible politics are possible under a single-term presidency. Who can guarantee that corrupt bids to win re-election will not take place if the president can run for another term? The arguments that the current constitution enacted under military dictatorship is inappropriate for the changed times are based on an overestimation of Korea's level of democratization.

It is also a mistake to believe the vice president will be able to diffuse the president's authority. As President Bush's choice of Dick Cheney as his running mate showed, the greatest consideration in choosing the vice president lies in loyalty to the president. Abuse of presidential power should be checked not by the vice president but by the system?he National Assembly. And even if the vice president can hold back the president, the secret power struggle between the two highest leaders will create political instability.

The vice presidency is also apt to intensify regional antagonism. Regionalism will gradually abate after the three Kims ?President Kim Dae-jung, former President Kim Young-sam and United Liberal Democrats leader Kim Jong-pil ?esign from politics, but if we adopt a vice presidency, that candidate will always come from a specific region. This will make regional alliances an explicit part of presidential elections and even relatively neutral regions will acquire strong regional tendencies.

If the goal is to cut back election expenses, we can hold parliamentary and regional elections simultaneously without amending the constitution. In circumstances when the president is elected with about 40 percent of the votes, there is no guarantee that the government will attain a majority in the assembly even if presidential elections are held simultaneously with general elections. It would be more future-oriented for the ruling and opposition parties to learn to implement politics of compromise and coexistence under a minority government.

Now is not the moment to waste our time and energy on discussing constitution amendment. It is time to concentrate on reviving the economy and generate a consensus on the power structure more appropriate for an earlier-than-expected reunification.

The writer is a professor of political science at Ewha Womans University.

by Cho Ki-suk

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