[VIEWPOINT]Topple idea of president as kingThe presidential election will be held in about six weeks. Voters should not forget that the winner of the election will face significant issues. The articles with the headline "Changes needed to imperial presidents of Korea," which have been appearing serially in the JoongAng Ilbo, have attracted attention.
The expression "imperial president" appearing in the JoongAng Ilbo articles originates from a book, "Imperial Presidency," written by the Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The first edition of the book was published in 1973, when Richard Nixon was the president of the United States. Mr. Schlesinger focused on the fact that U.S. presidents since the early 20th century had abused their powers, such as the authority to declare war, and frequently they acted outside the boundary of the nation's constitution.
Compared with the American concept of an imperial presidency, Korea's sounds omnipotent. It could be defined as a powerful figure who abuses centralized power by using every means possible, such as abusing and subverting the system and spirit stipulated in fundamental laws and the constitution. Korean presidents have controlled the prosecution and taxation. They bought Assembly members from other parties, which distorted the will of the people.
It is hard to explain why imperial presidents have won people's votes. Complex situations, both political and cultural, such as the division of the nation and a social order that deems vertical relationships still important, will not make it easy for change.
The appointment of a "cabinet-responsible prime minister" is one plan being presented to solve the problem. Candidates are campaigning on this promise of appointing a responsible prime minister.
The exact definition has not been given yet but the main point is that a such a prime minister should run the internal administration as well as nominate the cabinet. Domestic policies would be far more effective with a cabinet-responsible prime minister. Power would be distributed, not centralized under the president. But the idea has to be thoroughly examined.
First of all, a responsible prime minister cannot lead the administration if the ruling party dominates the National Assembly. The president will simply reject cabinet members who are not favorable to the president's programs and ideology.
Second, it is easier to have a prime minister-administered cabinet where congressional members of the opposition outnumber the party in power. The president has no other choice but to appoint a prime minister who is supported by the opposition when members of the opposition carry the deciding votes. The administration would be run by a president and the cabinet, which is similar to the system in France.
The dual organization, however, does not match the basic purpose of the current constitution. The prime minister is a supplementary authority for the president, according to the modern constitution of Korea. In addition, the conflict between the president and the cabinet causes acrimony and political discord.
The main point of an "imperial presidency" should be checks and balances. Just because the president controls the administration does not translate to political confusion or dictatorship. The problem arises when the president tries to dominate the Assembly.
The right track should be found in the operation of the Assembly's checks and balances on the administration. The members of the Assembly should have the autonomy and independence to achieve perfect checks and balances.
What people need as a desirable "presidential figure" is not a monarch nor a powerless and weak head of state but one who knows how the democratic political system works and respects the power of a system of checks and balance.
Then, the members of the Assembly would be truly able to prevent the abuse of power by the president.
* The writer is a professor of constitutional law at Hanyang University.
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