[Outlook] A chance for reformThe main protagonists in politics are only human. In particular, it goes without saying that the main actors in a democracy are the people. However, when any society implements a political system for too long, the main actors become subject of their own institutions and systems. We have often witnessed in history how an omnipotent ruler exercising an airtight dictatorship becomes captive to his own creation and loses his freedom of choice. Even in the case of a democracy, the shortcomings and insecurities of a less-than-perfect system can often create intense confusion and chaos when combined with a leader’s human limitations. With the presidential election exactly one month away, we cannot help wandering if this isn’t the situation our politics had fallen into.
When evaluating Korea’s politics using three factors ― representation, responsibility and efficiency ― our institutional inconsistencies and limits have already reached a dangerous level. It is widely acknowledged that the democracy of a stabilized modern society takes on the form of a representative government rather than a direct democracy, in which the populace must decide everything for themselves.
In the case of Korea, however, there seems to be no established rules for who represents whom, and moreover, the three pillars guaranteeing the stability of a representative government ― the political parties, the parliament and the election system ― are faulty, to say the least.
The governing party, which had its candidate elected president and became the majority party in the National Assembly, has changed alignments and party names four times over the past five years. Such frequent changes are proof positive of how insecure our democratic institutions still remain.
As our political system continues to fail when it comes to representation, our politicians are making major decisions affecting the entire country by relying on popularity polls more and more often.
The fact that Roh Moo-hyun and Chung Moon-joon decided to merge their candidacies in the 2002 presidential race based on a survey and that Rhee In-je and Chung Dong-young are doing the same thing in 2007 shows how our politicians would rather choose populist tactics than adhere to the slow but sound representative system. No matter how reliable a poll is, it cannot and should not replace the institutionalized procedures of representative politics.
As has already been pointed out several times before, our current system of government is a mutated presidential system in which the president holds power but no responsibilities. No matter how many times the president commits a grave mistake, no matter how low the people’s confidence in the president falls, there are no mechanisms to make the president responsible to the people, other than the last resort of resignation.
Korea’s politics fails miserably in the area of responsibility due to its incomplete presidential system, combined with flawed legislation, parties and election systems. In Korea, the public disappointment in the government’s efficiency is also leading to more skepticism about our nation’s very system of democracy.
Despite the shortcomings and insecurities in our political system, our people are concentrating on the characters of the candidates rather than on the much-needed reform of the system. Every five years, Koreans wait for the heavens to send them a great leader armed with character, academic intelligence, ethical superiority and political prowess. This is not unnatural. However, while the people can do something about reforming our system in a short time, they should know that a great leader who can meet their expectations is not made overnight. We should all remember that a flawed system paired with a flawed leader could very well spell disaster for our country.
We can no longer afford to get engrossed in politicians’ popularity contests while turning a blind eye to our system’s defects. It is not too late to demand that our presidential candidates promise that reforming the political system will be their upmost priority, should they be elected. For example, the candidates could consider proposing a temporary committee on amending the Constitution based on public consensus as soon as they are elected, in an effort to redouble attempts to reform the system. The 18th National Assembly, which will be formed through next April’s general elections, should also install a similar committee and strive to build national consensus on the issue. Incidentally, the year 2008, during which we will have both a new president and a new National Assembly, is also the 60th anniversary of our nation and our Constitution.
Both politicians and the general public should remember that 2008 would be a most opportune time to reorganize our political system and institutions.
*The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
By Lee Hong-koo