[OUTLOOK]Lawmakers Must Be Less Party-Bound

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[OUTLOOK]Lawmakers Must Be Less Party-Bound

Since the launch of democratic government in Korea in 1987, we have experienced a completely new constitutional system. What we have seen is a so-called "divided government," or a phenomenon in which the incumbent president's party, the "governing party," does not also have a majority in the National Assembly. We have seen the phenomenon repeat itself under every new administration since 1987.

President Kim Dae-jung overcame that legislative obstacle last year; although his party did not have a majority in the Assembly, he formed a coalition with the minor United Liberal Democrats and thereafter controlled both the administration and the Assembly.

That coalition lasted only about a year, however, and then the coalition between the Millennium Democrats and the ULD collapsed. After that, the main issue in Korean politics became how to manage a divided government.

What is the cause of these repeated incidents of divided government?

We can find the major reason in the regionally based multiparty system. Unlike the case before 1987, when a two-party system was the basis of politics, more parties have sprouted and found niches since then. Because of that system, the leading party is usually unable to obtain a plurality in the Assembly.

Presidential elections and legislative elections are not held at the same time, which could be an additional reason for divided governments. A legislative election held during the president's tenure is an obvious opportunity to evaluate his achievements or lack thereof. The president usually cannot meet people's expectations, so his party is prone to lose seats, perpetuating the divided government tendencies.

Is divided government desirable? Some scholars maintain that it is because it can prevent the president from wielding despotic power. They say, for instance, that the early Roh Tae-woo administration, beginning in 1987, demonstrated that a divided government could be successfully managed. Under a divided government for two years, the National Assembly intensified its control over the administration and the ruling and opposition parties did, indeed, find ways of compromising to pass legislation without the gridlock we are seeing these days.

But it is dangerous to make sweeping generalizations from that experience. The first two years of President Roh's tenure were a transition period from an authoritarian regime to a democratic society. The Roh administration did not have the political power to suppress the people's drive toward more democracy. The administration had to accept a divided government, although it did not welcome it.

As we can also see from our political history, Korean politicians are not ready to accept divided government as natural and enduring. All the divided governments that appeared after the four general elections were manipulated into a unified government through party mergers, the enticement of lawmakers from opposition parties to join the ruling party and the absorption of entire political parties. This history tells us that the Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung administrations, so-called democratic governments, could not resign themselves to being reined in by the National Assembly. That is one of the reasons many critics charge them with being imperial presidencies.

President Kim's resignation as his political party head changes the current situation, but the contest of wills between parties still goes on. The Grand National Party pushes to pass a bill to extend the teachers' retirement age. The governing party pledges to oppose the bill and President Kim is expected to veto it.

How should politicians cope with divided government? The solution is to enhance the autonomy of lawmakers. If a party president and a handful of his aides control the party and lawmakers have no autonomy, interparty strife will get worse. The president of the main opposition party cannot compromise all the time if he is looking forward to the next presidential election. But if lawmakers' autonomy is strengthened, the stalemate in state affairs can be broken even under a divided government. Individual lawmakers can cooperate with the administration's policies according to their own political convictions and propensities without being tied to the decision of the party they are affiliated with.

On the other hand, when the president's party controls a majority in the Assembly, the president may be inclined to run the government on his sole authority. At that point, independent-minded lawmakers can stave off the danger of one-man rule. So it is very important to encourage legislators' independence in order to overcome or tone down the deadlock between the ruling and opposition parties and to prevent a presidential dictatorship under a unified government.

Crossover voting can be an effective measure and should be encouraged immediately. Binding lawmakers to a party decision is not necessarily a virtue.


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The writer is dean of the law school at Hanyang University.

by Yang Kun

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