[FORUM]Role of a ‘small president’The year 2004 is closing. As Yonsama, the Japanese nickname of Bae Yong-jun, a Korean actor, has been chosen “Word of the Year” in Japan, we are flattered somehow. What will be the word of the year in Korea? Yonsama could be an important candidate for us as well. Dr. Hwang Woo-suk, archery, ping pong, a Web site “cyberworld,” economic recession, the National Security Law and the recent cheating incident by cell phones in College Scholastic Ability Test could be other candidates. The exposure of pro-Japanese collaborators and the representatives Shin Ki-nam and Kim Hee-sun could join the ranks too.
But the forerunner seems to be the Constitutional Court. Two decisions the court has made this year have special significance in our constitutional history. At each point, the court was in full control of the fate of the president, the symbol of absolute power. In the sense that the presidential impeachment was a match between the legislature and the president, the Constitutional Court was automatically raised to a powerful position. The special law on the capital relocation was a bill prepared by the legislature and at the same time a policy the president put first priority on. The fact that the court put a brake on this law is a blow to the president and the legislature as well. Who can criticize this judiciary as a puppet of the president?
The advance of the judiciary led to the shrinking of the administration and the legislature, particularly the president. Come to think of it, this year was a year of trials for the president. President Roh Moo-hyun was personally driven to impeachment and the authority and power of the presidency has shriveled. Compared to the imperial presidents of the past, he looks wretched and small.
But interestingly, this “small president” fits neatly into the intentions of President Roh. First of all, he distanced himself from the legislature. After declaring the separation of his administration from politics, he has taken a stand-off attitude toward politics. Even if the National Assembly is noisy, he says that it is the Assembly’s business, not his. Of course, the opposition parties believe that the president acts behind the scenes. Even so, he is quite different from past presidents who held the concurrent position of party chairman and regarded the Assembly as a mere place to approve his policies.
Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan’s voice is louder than that of any other prime minister in the past. President Roh announced publicly that he would give the post of prime minister to the chairman of the lead party after legislative elections. Unsatisfied even with this, he divided the cabinet by area and entrusted power to deputy prime ministers and ministers.
Mr. Roh’s governing principle can be summarized into autonomy and decentralization, and the value he pursues is the liquidation of authoritarianism. At his inauguration, he declared a hands-off attitude toward the prosecution and the National Intelligence Service. Compare him with the past presidents who wielded omnipotent power, actually controlling the legislature and the judiciary and having the prosecution and the National Intelligence Service at their disposal.
Mr. Roh’s experiment of a “small presidency” can be evaluated as progress toward democracy. For this experiment to succeed and take root, the president’s democratic leadership should work effectively and be supported by the efficient operation of state affairs. A “small president” itself cannot be an ultimate goal. But we feel empty because there are no such signs of efficiency. Could it be because authority is divided? On every impending policy issue, including real estate, the National Pension fund and financial policy, the party, the administration and the Blue House have different opinions, creating confusion, and the cabinet is in discord. We cannot see any comprehensive coordination of state affairs.
It is wrong of the president to say that the complicated situation because of confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties is none of his business. The president is the product of a contest among parties that advocate particular campaign pledges. This is why he cannot be free from politics in reality. The so-called reform bills are also policies that the president emphasized. Looking on the fight between the governing and opposition parties over these bills with his hands folded is avoiding his responsibility.
Looking back on the vices of the imperial presidents, a “small president” is an aim we should pursue. But a reduction in authority should not lead to abandonment of politics or confusion in national administration. The president needs leadership to coordinate and manage the divided authority within a big framework. If he lacks such leadership, even his achievements may be recorded as those of a small president.
* The writer is the chief of the editorial page, JoongAng Ilbo.
by Heo Nam-chin