[Outlook] Time for change

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[Outlook] Time for change

Gwanghwamun, central Seoul turns into a lawless zone every night. The catch phrase “2MB Out,” is everywhere on the Internet and cars have stickers with the phrase. 2MB, of course, is a nickname for President Lee Myung-bak. Even primary school students bear signs that read “Step down, Lee Myung-bak.”

Only four months have passed since the president was sworn into office after winning the election with the largest margin in Korean election history. Protestors are allowed to have peaceful gatherings but they smashed police cars and trampled on riot police. They say the plan is to march toward the Blue House, as if they intend to drag down the president by force.

Expatriates find this whole incident bizarre. A European diplomat said that Korean presidents face a vicious circle of high approval rates until they are elected and lame-duck status once they are sworn in. He asked why. It is hard to understand why the people entrust the president with duties and then don’t give him enough time to work, instead driving him into a corner, he added. He also asked if it is possible for the president to push through his foreign affairs policy in such situation.

It is often said that a merit of the presidential system is a stable administration because a government can push through consistent policy during a term that is guaranteed by law. But Korea’s administrations go through much more turbulence than European countries that have the parliamentary system. The foreign diplomat didn’t know how to report the Korean president’s ever-changing approval rate to his country.

An administration with a 10 percent approval rate can’t exist. In the parliamentary system, the administration would be replaced many times.

It seems there is no way to solve this problem. The incumbent administration is not alone. The former Roh Moo-hyun administration confronted with the media over almost every issue. In the later phase of the term, he was virtually a vegetable as president.

In Korea, the president doesn’t take responsibility when a country is put into chaos. Public law enforcement is not respected. Even when the general public opposes the president, the president can serve out his term. He doesn’t worry about the next election. The people are neither understanding nor helpful. Those who supported other candidates during the presidential election are still resentful. They don’t give the president a chance, simply demanding that he resign. The people use violence to push aside the police and sneer at the law. They beautify their violent protests with terms like “human rights,” “the right to protest” or “direct democracy.” There is no responsibility in the system.

The recent incidents in Gwanghwamun shouldn’t happen in a country which has an administration. The responsibility lies with the incompetent Lee Myung-bak government. The members of the administration don’t seem to know what they should do. They don’t have principles about what is allowed and what is not.

It doesn’t seem that things would be different if different people were in their place. Every administration has had conflict with the general public.

What went wrong? It is time to think seriously about what system can reflect the general public’s opinions and take responsibility for governing the country.

Not much can be done in a system where the president falls into lame-duck status as soon as he is sworn in. It makes one feel helpless to see an administration go through this for five years and not be able to find any solutions. It continues to happen because politicians fight fiercely during the presidential election, betting everything they have to win.

When the lame-duck status comes early, it becomes an ordinary routine to have a small ruling party and a big opposition. As people, not political parties, are at the center of politics, it is difficult to keep policies consistent.

When presidential elections and legislative elections don’t coincide with each other, like now, legislative elections are not midterm elections or honeymoon elections. It is like leaving the destiny of the administration to random chance.

It was President Roh who mentioned a revision to the Constitution first. Before the president officially argued for the amendment, a variety of academic associations held seminars on the issue to create the right climate. I attended several of those discussions.

Then, I said it was too early to revise the Constitution because obviously there was a political intent behind the move. There was little chance for this to happen. The Uri Party had lower chances than the opposition party to win the presidential election. Thus, Uri members wanted to shake up the election campaign with a debate on the revision of the Constitution, but there was no chance the then-opposition Grand National Party would accept it.

Most other people participating in the discussions agreed on the necessity of the amendment. They were divided only over the idea of doing it just before the presidential election.

However, things have now changed. According to a survey conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo, one out of five lawmakers think the constitutional revision is necessary. Some say restoring the economy is the top priority. But unless the country is sharply divided over the issue, causing serious conflict, there is no reason to delay the amendment.

Debates on the subject have progressed. There are concrete ideas and suggestions about the two-term presidency, the parliamentary system, the vice president system and even measures regarding the economy and reunification.

The next presidential election and legislative elections are about four years away. The possibility of political distortions coming into play are now at their minimum. When elections near, political interest will have a strong influence on the issue.

The 1987 Constitution that we have now is the result of a compromise between four political leaders at that time. It was possible to draw up the Constitution that way because it was revised shortly before the presidential election.

This is why the revision of the Constitution must be completed before 2010, when the local elections are to be held, or at least in 2011, when there are no elections.

by Kim Jin-kook

*The writer is political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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