[OUTLOOK]Roh-style presidency is flawedOne day, a cow showed up at the Blue House. President Rhee Syng-man said, “It came to tell me that I should revise the constitution for the third term.” President Park Chung-hee said, “Send the cow to the countryside.”
President Chun Doo Hwan said, “Call the Hana Club members.” President Roh Tae-woo said, “Has anyone else seen it?” President Kim Young-sam said, “Give it to my son Hyeon-cheol.” President Kim Dae-joong said, “Send it to the North.”
President Roh Moo-hyun said, “Why has it come to me? It should have gone to the Uri Party or the prime minister.”
The joke going around town acutely reflects the characters of the presidents. In case of President Roh Moo-hyun, it cynically points out his policies of decentralization and separation between the party and the government while implicitly criticizing him for dodging responsibility.
President Roh has put his heart into pursuing a system under which the president shares power with the prime minister by entrusting him with control over the cabinet. The system also upholds the principle of separation between the Uri Party and the government so that the president does not get involved in the governing party.
The “imperial president” has been considered the biggest problem of Korean politics. As the president dominates the Uri Party and holds sway over the National Assembly, he emerges as an unchallenged leader with legislative power on one hand and administrative power on the other.
The Blue House explains that the decentralization and separation of power reflect President Roh’s will. The plan resembles the semi-presidential system of France, but Koreans consider it a completely new political experiment of a “Roh Moo-hyun-style presidency.”
Everyone seems to agree on the purpose of the experiment. The problem is the effectiveness, however, and the governing party was the first to say that the change in system would not help the national administration.
In mid-June, several Uri Party members condemned the president, saying that the separation between the party and the government resulted in an isolation of the Uri Party and that the collaboration between the party and the government has not been smooth.
However, President Roh brushed off the criticism and proclaimed to even further the separation, saying that he would discuss with the party to devise a plan to better support the prime minister’s control over state affairs and more effectively manage the party leadership. However, we need to review whether his experiment is the best option and whether it can be improved.
What distinguishes the Roh Moo-hyun presidency is the absence of Blue House politics. In a nation under the presidential system, the main political entities are the president, political parties, the parliament and the cabinet. The smoother the interaction between the president and each entity is, the political process becomes more stable and productive.
But President Roh wants to sever communications even with the Uri Party, not to mention the opposition. His vision is far from what a “normal” structure of politics should be.
The president has entrusted the relationship with the opposition to the Uri Party and the prime minister. However, the Uri Party leaders and the prime minister cannot replace the president, because they have different roles and responsibilities of different weights. Moreover, the party itself has lamented the absence of central force, so we cannot expect the opposition party to get excited about talking to the rival party.
Although the prime minister has been entrusted to manage much of the national affairs, he is still a proxy. Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan is more of a fighter, insulting his negotiation partner as corrupt.
The president is the highest man responsible for the management of state affairs, so it is only natural that the National Assembly, the representatives of the citizens, call the president accountable for overall national affairs. The president, in turn, should persuade and consult the National Assembly and opposition parties.
It is not right for the president to speak ill of the opposition party or seek to expand the influence and form a coalition with another party while shifting the responsibility for the talks with the opposition to the governing party and the prime minister.
As the central entity of politics, it is ironic that the president draws a line in politics. Critics might call it a new type of reigning authoritarianism and condemn him for dodging responsibility by hiding under a convenient excuse called the “separation of power.”
The reduction of the president’s executive powers could be remembered as one of President Roh’s achievements. However, the meaning would be diluted if he stops here. It should be followed by efforts to create a fresh political culture based on a moral foundation. Only when the politics of coexistence, which President Roh has repeatedly stressed, has spread, we can say reform has begun.
To open a new chapter, he needs to jump into politics instead of pulling out of it. He could create a compromise by bringing back the long-neglected meetings between the governing and opposition leaders.
Aside from the aforementioned problem, the Roh Moo-hyun-style presidency also has other problems, like the potential confusion from the blurred boundaries between the roles of the president and the prime minister and the systematic flaw that allows changes to be reversed by his successor. If the much-awaited political experiment is to become a true political development, it must be followed by numerous efforts.
* The writer is the chief of the JoongAng Ilbo’s editorial page.
by Heo Nam-chin