[OUTLOOK]Too much power in one seatThis year could be the most opportune time to expel the anachronistic term “presidential prerogative” from our society. Until now, our society has been afflicted with the serious illness called the presidential prerogative for two years before and after the presidential elections.
For more than two years after the presidential election, we have repeatedly made a fuss in settling bad relations and old scores from the election. For another two years before the presidential election, the illness of the presidential prerogative will be showing its symptoms, unable to hide them any longer.
If so, this year, the midpoint of President Roh Moo-hyun’s term, can be a time to diagnose the illness of the presidential prerogative and prescribe remedies for it relatively calmly.
It is a unique phenomenon of our society that the feudal expression “presidential prerogative” is still used without producing any negative response in a civil society where democracy is the norm.
Aside from the constitutional clause that “all power comes from the people,” in today’s Korea, where people of all social standings express their opinions in everyday life, the problem of continuing the politics of supreme power ― in which all power is entrusted to one person―should not be left as it is.
The tradition of the Blue House-centered operation of state affairs, which goes back to former President Syngman Rhee, shows the dreadful power that can easily numb the people’s democratic sensibility. We could only watch helplessly as the president stuck to politics as usual once he took office, even though he won on his experience as an outsider and a democracy activist.
After all, the task of Korean politics is to find ways to change the custom of supreme-power politics, which has already revealed all of its limitations.
To promote the qualitative improvement of democracy in Korea, we need to examine from the perspectives of political culture and structure the evil effects of the presidential prerogative that plagues Korean politics today.
First, seen from the perspective of political culture, our reality is that many would-be politicians cannot help causing confusion during the goal-setting stage. Their goals are always ambiguous: whether to represent and rule the country, standing aloof from the citizens, or to operate state affairs together with many friends or colleagues or both.
If the basic goal of participation in politics is to contribute to solving the current problems by taking the responsibility of national administration, they can find models for stable democratic political leaders in British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
But in the Korean political culture, they still have the tendency to see the presidency as an extension of the crown or throne once held by the feudal lord. The syndrome of Wang Gun, the founder of Goryu, is still affecting them strongly. The political culture in which the president is considered as a king aggravates the illness of the presidential prerogative.
To simplify the negative tradition of the politics of supreme power from the structural perspective, I have pointed out many times that the tradition has something to do with the president’s lack of accountability. In our present system, the president pledges and declares that he will take responsibility but cannot state clear and specific ways to do so.
Concentration of power on a person who cannot take responsibility goes against the principle of democracy.
In this regard, it is all the more confusing to think that the primary responsibility for the operation of state affairs or legislature should be held by political parties, particularly the governing party.
Today’s reality is that Korean political parties and politicians, particularly lawmakers, are distrusted and criticized by the public. But calling to account only political parties that have no actual power or authority is not reasonable.
If they are to be held responsible for the operation of state affairs, they should be provided with the frame of parliamentary democracy that can stand at the center of politics. We should at least attempt to conceive a system in which the authority or responsibility of political parties is closely linked to the president.
Not only that, the time has come to address the indifference of the people who are fascinated by the drama that stems from the politics of supreme power.
Such indifference has contributed to the continuation of the system under which the president takes no responsibility, a system whose vulnerability and limitations have already been exposed clearly.
For this reason, I suggest making this year the year of banishing the presidential prerogative. I hope would-be presidents will give up the dream of becoming another “Wang Gun” and adjust their attitude and strategy with the goal becoming the citizens’ representative. To this end, we should be seriously discussing constitutional revision.
* The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo