[OUTLOOK]Roh’s call for change comes too latePresident Roh seems to have a lot of time on his hands these days. He’s already twice proposed that the Constitution be amended to allow a two-term presidency. With the president pushing for such big changes so early in the year, we are already worried about how many more bombs he might drop during the remaining year of his term.
Korea has a comparatively short history of democracy and for the successful settlement of a democratic government, certain drastic changes such as a constitutional amendment might be called for. However, the timing and manner of discussing constitutional changes have as important an influence on the stable development of democracy as the content of such changes. When it comes to amending the Constitution, the “when” and “how” are just as important as the “what.”
Many experts and the general public alike agree that there are problems in our current Constitution and that there is room for improvement, especially in the articles concerning our government structure and election system. Last April, the Kwanhun Club, a gathering of senior journalists that had contributed a relatively neutral and objective arena of debate every time there was a constitutional amendment, held a series of discussions on the possibility of amending the present Constitution, which was last amended in 1987. There had been various opinions on how to change the Constitution, but the majority agreed that it was too late into the presidential term to push for an overall amendment, including changes to the government structure and presidential term. This was when we still had 20 months left before the next presidential election.
In an effort to solve the problem of the discrepancy between the electoral cycles of the president and the National Assembly, this column had suggested last May a single article amendment. Considering the fact that the 16th presidential term and the 17th National Assembly term both end in the spring of 2008, this year would be an appropriate year to adjust the terms. By stating that the 17th presidential term be four years in the Constitution, the discrepancy between the two terms would be solved. Along with this change, the column suggested that the 18th National Assembly, which would start in 2008, exactly 60 years from when our Constitution was established in 1948, be designated to implement an overall amendment to the Constitution. The reason for such a proposal was that despite the late timing for an overall constitutional change we could at least solve the instability in our government coming from the disharmony between the presidential term and the National Assembly’s term.
However, at the time, the Roh administration showed no interest in the discussion of a constitutional change, stating that it was too late. Now the same government, with only 11 months left in its term, has proposed a constitutional amendment. It is no wonder that the public has taken this news with suspicion and apprehension. The public reaction is that while the majority thinks that our Constitution is in need of an amendment, such an effort should be commenced in the next administration. Democracy can only be stably maintained when it is implemented according to the laws of democracy. That is why a constitutional change must come as a result of discussion among the people, civic groups, political parties and the National Assembly, instead of a single-handed proposal by the president.
If it is the president’s intention to enhance the responsibility and efficiency of democratic governance, then the public should take this opportunity to test the maturity of our politics. We must seriously review our public tendency to unconditionally lend all our powers to a directly elected president just because we had suffered from authoritarian regimes in the past.
While most of the stable democratic countries in the world have a parliamentary cabinet system, about the only successful case of a president-centered political system is the United States. Considering the fact that oftentimes a governmental system with a strong president leads to corruption and backwardness, we should review our options for further advancing our politics. All in all, we must form a national consensus that the Constitution should be changed not by the next administration but by the next National Assembly ― that is, by the legislative branch elected by the people. The discussion on a constitutional change of late reflects the sorry loss of priorities that this government has shown ever since its beginning. It is not as if our country has no urgent problems that the president should be concentrating solely on amending the Constitution so early into the year. The president has made his point in that the Constitution needs amending. Now he can go back to attending to the really urgent national issues at hand.
*The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo