[OUTLOOK]End irresponsible presidentialismThe stormy political situation in Korea implies that the nation has already agreed that the time has come to end the “irresponsible presidential system.” If we were to reform the system, would it be wiser to give up the presidential system that promotes a backward political climate altogether and instead pursue a parliamentary government?
The public overlooks the simple fact that the presidential system is hardly an advanced idea. While the majority of members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development enjoy a stable democracy under the parliamentary system, many Latin American and African countries suffer from chronic political instability and degradation under the presidential system.
Asian examples suggest a similar situation. With a population of 1 billion, India is the largest democratic country in the world, and Japan boasts the second largest economy in the world. Both countries successfully established a democratic tradition with the parliamentary system. We should note that Indonesia and the Philippines, which chose the presidential system, are caught in the quagmire of serious political instability.
The United States, which has had a presidential system for over two centuries, is a rare success case. Yet, the triumph of the presidential system in the United States is largely due to the unique diversity of the country, and cannot be imitated or benchmarked elsewhere. So why have we stood by the presidential system for so long?
The champions of the presidential system have always considered the need for strong leadership as the prime reason to pursue the system. The historical and circumstantial background is clear. Korean political culture is still influenced by the tradition of kingship, which ruled the country for several millennia.
The public feels nostalgic for such leadership models as Wang Geon, the founder of the Goryeo Dynasty. The first president, Syngman Rhee, and his successors would not deny that they considered the presidency an extension of kingship.
Korea’s modern history has been turbulent since its independence and the establishment of the republic, the division of the peninsula and the devastating war, and industrialization and democratization. Naturally, the public has called for a chief executive with great leadership skills. But, the half-century-long tradition of the presidential system has proven more evil than good.
Crony politics has put Blue House secretaries at the center of power and reduced the cabinet to mere executive machinery. The legislature has lost power and the National Assembly has become a sideshow. Everything is at stake in a presidential election, and creating illegal slush funds has become a routine practice.
The evils of the presidential system are threatening the politics of accountability and representation, the core of democracy. The shocking illegal fund-raising scandals related to the presidential campaign have brought politicians under criticism, yet the belated attempt to revise the laws on political funds and the election campaign might be able to save the nation from further disgrace.
But the ailments of Korean politics have reached the point where they cannot be treated by such a temporary remedy targeting a particular symptom. It is about time to make the drastic decision to revise the constitution to switch from the “irresponsible presidential system” to the parliamentary system with a responsible cabinet. It might be the only way to save the system of Korean democracy.
I hope that the ruling and opposition parties include the constitutional revision in their campaign promises for the upcoming National Assembly elections scheduled in April. President Roh Moo-hyun steps down in February 2008, and the lawmakers chosen in the 17th National Assembly elections will complete their terms only two months later.
If the newly elected lawmakers agree on the constitutional revision to switch to the parliamentary system and complete the necessary legislative procedures next year, both politicians and parties would be given four full years to prepare for the new system.
Politicians, especially those who want to be president, should model themselves after British Prime Minister Tony Blair or Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi instead of U.S. President George W. Bush or Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their ultimate career goal should be to be the prime minister of Korea.
The head of state of the new era should be the master of harmony and compromise, instead of reigning over people. The political parties should refuse to remain merely support groups for the president but should assume the role of central political forces. The parties should take responsibility for the outcome of their policy decisions.
In fact, many ruling and opposition leaders, as well as citizens, have repeatedly addressed the need for fundamental reform of Korean politics through constitutional revision. It is time to make up our minds. The ball and chain of feuding has tied up the nation, and it is now on the verge of collapse. We can no longer waste more time over struggles for various interests. When the new year comes, we will need real courage to make the drastic change.
* The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo