[VIEWPOINT]The Perils of Governing Independently

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[VIEWPOINT]The Perils of Governing Independently

There are at least three ways that political leaders can face ruination: by a sex scandal, like Bill Clinton; by gambling on a world war, like Adolf Hitler; or by too much dependence on close aides, like Richard Nixon. In political satire, a sex scandal is described as the most delightful way to ruin, gambling on a war is said to be the fastest way and listening only to close aides is said to be the surest way.

President Kim Dae-jung is facing a serious governing crisis because of the harmful influence exercised by the politics of his closest aides. Not only has the party gone out of control of its president, but also many state affairs - the economy, diplomacy, education and personnel management - have been thrown into disorder to the point that Mr. Kim can control little at all. In order to avoid a sure collapse brought on by the harmful influence of close aides, Mr. Kim resigned as president of his party.

This is the first time in Korea's history that a president has resigned from the presidency of the ruling party before a presidential candidate of that party had been named. This is an important political experiment because it represents a challenge to constitutional democracy based on the politics of responsibility.

One cannot help paying attention to whether Mr. Kim's political determination is a watershed that will give fresh air to chaotic national affairs, or will simply accelerate a lame duck phenomenon and fall flat.

Mr. Kim's determination surely cannot be the best solution. A better prescription for Korea's problems is not seeking a governance independent from political parties, but activating the politics of responsibility while excluding the influence of close aides. Public opinion seems to generally support Mr. Kim's determination. People seem to believe that governing independently from political parties and excluding close aides can easily gain bipartisan cooperation and consent from the public. But that is just a romantic and naive belief. Let me explain why.

First, running a country independent of political parties can destroy the politics of responsibility from the bottom up. Whether the constitutional government succeeds or not depends on whether people can put the responsibilities for something wrong on the ruling power. For example, when the Great Depression broke out in the United States in 1929, the U.S. people drove out the Republican regime and chose Roosevelt's Democratic regime in order to rebuild the country. In Korea, if there had not been the politics of responsibility, it would have been impossible to overcome the financial crisis of 1997 by choosing a new government.

Second, that kind of governing can easily change into populism. Governing independently from political parties has the possibility of reinforcing President Kim's emperor-like governing style, because, unlike the outward appearance, he has a strong tendency to be one. In that case, the function of political parties and the National Assembly, which are responsible for gathering public opinion and making policy decisions, will be made impotent. Instead, a new governing system, in which seemingly "neutral" bureaucrats will decide and execute everything, will emerge. In that system, even though there is something wrong in state affairs, there will be no one to take responsibility. This is a so called "system of no responsibility." Mao Zedong failed to solve this contradiction through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Same for the former President Kim Young-sam, who also depended too much on bureaucrats.

The German sociologist Max Weber emphasized that the only solution to modern political problems was to activate parliamentarism based on political parties. Surely it will not be so easy to persuade people to activate parliamentarianism at this time, for it is difficult for political parties and the National Assembly to have real meaning in people's daily lives these days. But now we have to choose one out of the following: to recover the politics of political parties as soon as possible to realize the politics of responsibility and effective governing, or to accelerate the extinction of the system. If the former is not selected, President Kim's certain failure will be accelerated.


The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

by Chang Dal-joong

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