[Viewpoint]A change in government

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[Viewpoint]A change in government

Past Korean presidents are not free from corruption. That is why the previous administration’s promise to be corruption-free has turned out to be problematic. A secret deal has emerged involving Sejong Securities that implicates several people close to former President Roh Moo-hyun.

Korean presidents have absolute power and the people around them try to seize the opportunity of a lifetime. That’s why corruption repeats itself.

The country’s fate is dependent on the president’s judgment because he has power as a head of state and the head of his administration. The presidential election is almost like betting on who will win. If you side with the winner, you can potentially benefit.

Because power is so concentrated in one person, lawmakers become dispirited. That is why party politics has never worked in Korea, and the importance of the National Assembly and lawmakers has been forgotten. Whenever a new president is elected, the country’s political machine is interrupted. Taming public servants has become routine, and the career public service system has collapsed.

In order to overcome this condition, politicians are reviewing a plan to introduce a semi-presidential system to Korea, in which both the president and a prime minister are active participants in the day-to-day administration of the state.

Such a system is also called a hybrid government in political and constitutional studies. In fact, hybrid governments are rare. Iceland, Ireland, Finland, Portugal, Austria and France are examples.

In those countries, voters elect their president while the legislature selects the prime minister. This is different from a parliamentary government, in which the legislature selects both the president and the prime minister.

Most countries are run under a parliamentary government system, while the United States, Latin American nations and some in Asia have presidential systems.

Among hybrid governments, Iceland has 310,000 inhabitants. The country saw rapid growth through foreign capital but recently faced national bankruptcy. The country’s size and situation, therefore, are not a model that Korea should look to.

France’s system is semi-presidential. The president runs the administration without having responsibility over the National Assembly. The president also has the right to dismiss the lower house. It is a strong presidential system. The president appoints whoever is leading the largest political party as prime minister. “Cohabitation” occurs when the president and prime minister are from different political parties. The delineation between the jobs of the president and the prime minister is ambiguous, so under cohabitation governments, conflicts are common when leaders have different opinions.

France has had three cohabitation governments in the past, which were criticized as politically messy. In order to overcome the problem, the country’s constitution was amended to shorten the president’s term from seven years to five to match it with the legislature’s.

Whether the system can still be called semi-presidential is debatable.

Ireland, Finland, Portugal and Austria are relatively small nations with populations of between 4 million and 10 million. They are, in fact, run by prime ministers. Based on stable political parties, those countries’ legislatures select prime ministers and form cabinets. The administration runs the country with the legislature’s support.

Conflict between the administration and the legislature is rare, and it only takes place in a political crisis.

Those countries, therefore, do not call their governments “hybrid.” They prefer the label “parliamentary governments,” according to scholars and lawmakers from Dublin, Lisbon and Vienna.

While the presidents are elected directly, they do not intervene in domestic affairs. The president is almost a symbol of the nation, representing the state and its people. The president has the right to dismiss the legislature, but it is rarely exercised. Some countries give the president the right to veto bills.

In those countries, the president is nonpartisan. The people are proud of electing their president and respect the leader. They believe the president will be free from political factions as long as the prime minister is running politics.

The countries that are under so-called semi-presidential systems are in fact governed by parliamentary systems. The parliamentary system, then, can be distinguished into two kinds. In a unitary parliamentary system, a general election forms the legislature, which selects the president and the prime minister. In a dual parliamentary system, the legislature is chosen in a general election, and it forms the cabinet. The president, meanwhile, is directly elected.

No country gives the president and prime minister equal shares of power.

Now, the discussion should focus on whether Korea wants to keep its presidential system or introduce a parliamentary system. If we decide to adopt a parliamentary system, we will have to make a choice about whether the unitary or dual parliamentary system is more appropriate for our present and future.


*The writer is a professor of constitutional studies at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Chung Jong-sup
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