[OUTLOOK]Keeping promises does matterStephen Bosworth, a U.S. ambassador to Korea during the Clinton administration, was once asked what he thought was the greatest thing about living in Korea. He answered that life in Korea was great because it was not boring. Politics and economy, society and culture all evolve on a fast track, leaving no time to get bored. This is what Mr. Bosworth said he liked about his life in Korea.
Most foreigners living in Korea probably feel the same way that Mr. Bosworth did. Hardly a day goes by without a building being constructed or demolished and roads being paved. Even institutions and systems that are supposed to be reliable and stable change often. Korea is definitely a dynamic society. Topping the dynamics of this society is the presidential election, which takes place every five years, an unpredictable, ever-changing and exciting political event.
Foreigners living in Korea this year during the presidential campaigns are witnessing one of the most exciting political games on the face of the earth. Barely one month ago, the center-right Grand National Party candidate, Lee Hoi-chang, was leading the race with ease. But then one of his main opponents, the Millennium Democratic Party's Roh Moo-hyun, convinced the businessman-turned-politician, Chung Mong-joon, leader of his own newly-formed party, called the National Alliance 21, to fold his presidential ambitions and support him instead. With the alliance of the two, the race suddenly became racy with no one able to predict what would happen next, let alone who will win the election.
The deepening fear of losing has Mr. Lee and Mr. Roh frantically pouring out new ideas and promises to capture the hearts of the voters. Promise as they might, many people are skeptical whether the winner, whoever he may be, will keep his word. We have witnessed too often in Korean politics campaign promises turning into tissue once the gong heralds election victory.
Even without all, or most, promises being kept, it seems like a revision of the constitution is unavoidable, whoever becomes the next president.
Mr. Roh has proposed revising the constitution to provide for a dual executive system in which the president can concentrate on national defense and foreign affairs while the prime minister takes care of home affairs. Mr. Chung suggested the idea to Mr. Roh and, in fact, offered his support on the condition that Mr. Roh accept it as one of his campaign promises.
Mr. Lee, the Grand National Party's candidate, also wants to revise the constitution. Having originally drawn the line of government reform at bestowing more power on the prime minister while keeping the present framework, Mr. Lee called a hurried news conference on Sunday and announced that if he becomes president, he would pursue a constitutional revision to change the presidential term to four years with re-election allowed. The two candidates seem all too aware of the criticism that even civilian presidents who had once fought for democracy exercised unlimited power much like their military predecessors when they became the boss of the Blue House. In the political jargon of present-day Korea, constitutional revision means decentralization of power.
Still, the two presidential aspirants show a clear difference of opinion on what the roles of the next administration and the Blue House should be. The Grand National Party's candidate has continuously advocated the reduction of government functions to achieve efficiency. One of his proposals, the merger of government agencies that have similar functions, applies to the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy and the Ministry of Information and Communication.
Mr. Roh, on the other hand, thinks more authority should be given to the Blue House staff. He has emphasized an active role for the government, including direct intervention of the president in labor-management conflicts. Based purely on the intended role of government, the Grand National Party's position is close to that of the Republican Party of the United States; the Millennium Democratic Party resembles the U.S. Democrats in policy.
The Millennium Democrats also want the election laws to be changed. Instead of a single-member electorate system in which only one legislator can represent one small electoral district, they want two or three representatives to be voted in slightly enlarged districts. The party insists this new system would help change voting habits based on regionalism in which voters support only candidates who hail from their region. Another good reason the Millennium Democratic Party might want this change is the fact that the Honam region, the party's stronghold, has a smaller population than the Grand National Party's Yeungnam region. The Grand National Party is not saying anything about the electoral system. It aims to narrow the gap between the number of voters in the cities and those in the countryside in order to level the votes.
Mr. Lee promises in his campaign to root out corruption in politics and establish a law-abiding society. Mr. Roh hopes to banish all traditional politics and introduce a new era. They are all grand promises. So grand, in fact, that most voters do not even expect them to be realized any time soon. It would be grand, they say, if the next president remembers and carries out just even part of what he promised in his campaign platform.
* The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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