[VIEWPOINT]Roh has no devil to sleep with

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[VIEWPOINT]Roh has no devil to sleep with

It is said that no presidential election in Korea has been accompanied by aftereffects as severe as those of the December poll. Needless to say, this is due to the fact that the competitive structure of this election was unusual -- the struggle between different cultures of different generations overlapping with fierce regional rivalries. In what seemed like an effort to ease the tension, President-elect Roh Moo-hyun proposed last week to model his administration after France's "semi-presidential" government, which decentralizes power more than Korea's government does.

It is said that when two people meet in France, a political party is formed and when three meet, a constitutional crisis happens. Indeed, in France politics is disruptive and contentious. To overcome such political division, France has experimented with political ideas as no other Western country has. The semi-presidential system President Charles de Gaulle devised resulted from such experiments with political systems. This semi-presidential system that Mr. Roh refers to is one in which the president handles foreign affairs and national security and the prime minister leads the cabinet to take care of domestic affairs.

This decentralized model is expected to give Korean politics a little breathing room from the sufferings of imperial presidential rule and acute party rivalry. It is also expected to provide an incentive for the opposition, the Grand National Party, currently the majority party, to cooperate during the first days of Mr. Roh's government.

For such a political experiment to succeed, however, more technical and immediate problems must be solved. First, a decentralized presidency cannot succeed if the problem of the "systemization of irresponsibility" is not solved. This problem is indeed the Achilles heel of the semi-presidential government system.

The spectacle of both the president and the prime minister of France's cohabitation government attending the G-7 summit meeting, each insisting that he represents the French government, could be called cute. But the problem becomes serious should a national crisis occur and it is unclear who should assume responsibility.

The sharing of power by the emperor and the military leadership in Japan before World War II is a classic example of how no one could be held responsible for the war. Of course, the chaos could be lessened somewhat if the presidential term is expanded from five years to six and the term of National Assembly members cut to three years from four and the elections are held together.

Another problem with this system is the more realistic problem of whether such a system could effectively transform Mr. Roh's ideas into concrete policies. Reform requires an ally to share power with. One should not hesitate to "sleep with the enemy," as the saying goes. Vladimir Lenin said that he would ally with not only the devil but the devil's grandmother if that was what it took for the victory of the Bolsheviks. President Kim Dae-jung joined hands with Kim Jong-pil, one of his two eternal rivals, to carry out his reforms.

The Roh Moo-hyun government, however, does not even have enemies with whom it could form an alliance. There is no guarantee that things would change with next year's National Assembly elections. Should a cohabitation government actually be formed, Mr. Roh might have to say goodbye to his ideas of reform. This is why majority rule and direct democracy remain forever attractive to political leaders.

Mr. Roh said that the maturity of our politics would determine the outcome of this experiment with the semi-presidential system. Yet it is the job of the politician to ensure the maturity of a society's politics. A strategy and leadership to overcome the failed examples of the former presidents is needed here.

Without Mr. Roh showing such a strategy and leadership, the paralyzing political contention will go on despite all our wishing for change.


by Chang Dal-joong

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