Constitutional change needed by June, says Lee

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Constitutional change needed by June, says Lee

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Lee Jae-oh

A constitutional amendment to clean up Korean politics must be passed during the first half of next year or else the issue must be dropped, Lee Jae-oh, President Lee Myung-bak’s minister without portfolio handling political affairs, said in an exclusive interview with the JoongAng Ilbo on Friday.

The 65-year-old Grand National lawmaker and advisor to the president elaborated on the merits of a constitutional amendment to end the country’s single-term, five-year presidency. Lee has argued that the country must adopt a four-year presidency with a possibility of re-election in a semipresidential system that splits power between the president and the prime minister.

“The political landscape will fall into a chaos if we continue to talk about the constitutional amendment after the first half of next year because the general election for lawmakers would come 10 months [later in April 2012],” he said.

Lee said there has been enough discussion on how to make the change.

“When the ruling and opposition parties agree, it is possible to amend the constitution during the first half of next year,” Lee said.

During the 80-minute interview, Lee said that the change is inevitable.

“Right now, the winner takes all, while the losers lose everything and submit to the winner,” he said. “Because no one wants to do that, they are fighting. To stop this, we must divide power. No matter how excellent a president is, no one can succeed in everything in both domestic and foreign affairs.”

He said a semipresidential system - also known as a presidential-parliamentary system - will end the country’s perennial regionalism in politics and successfully divide power. In this system, a president, elected directly by the people, will be in charge of defense, and foreign and trade affairs, while the cabinet will be responsible to the legislature to handle domestic and political affairs.

Both the president and prime minister would be active participants in the day-to-day administration and it will be possible for the president and prime minister to be from each of the two main competing political regions of the country, Jeolla and Gyeongsang.

“When a party becomes a majority, it must not form a cabinet alone, but form an alliance with the second and third largest parties,” Lee said. “Then, the president and the cabinet and the ruling and opposition parties will share their power and responsibility.”

“Under the system, a party can become the majority in the legislature, even if it does not have the president. The minority party can also have the opportunity to have a president,” Lee said. “It will open up the opportunity for the Democrats to participate in the state affairs. It will end the regional split and divide power.”

Lee said the constitutional amendment must also specify how to divide the roles of the president and the prime minister in order to smoothly operate the system.

Lee dismissed skepticism by pro-Park Geun-hye lawmakers that his constitutional amendment has a hidden motive. Park, former Grand National chairwoman, is the strongest presidential contender in the current political arena. She lost to President Lee in the 2007 GNP primary.

“Not only Park, but also DP Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu will have no problem with their presidential primary elections,” Lee said. “I have enthusiastically explained the constitutional amendment proposal to pro-Park lawmakers. Whether they support it or not, they now understand why I want to do this.”

Lee said it is premature to say that the proposed semi-presidential system will be favorable to Park, Sohn or any other politicians. “The current polls are just a prediction,” Lee said. “There will be primaries and a real election. It is too early to say whom the constitutional amendment will be beneficial to.”

Lee said he will meet with Park and have a frank discussion of the issue. “There is no reason for us not to meet, since we belong to the same political party,” he said.

The relationship between Lee and Park has been somewhat sour after the two clashed during the GNP’s nominations for the 2008 legislative elections. Park had fiercely condemned Lee, a central figure in the pro-Lee Myung-bak faction, for having excluded her supporters from becoming candidates.

In his interview, Lee said he did not consult deeply with President Lee about the constitutional amendment. “During his Aug. 15 Liberation Day address, Lee had mentioned the issue,” Lee said. “The president cannot talk about the changes in detail because he can be misunderstood as making attempts to lengthen the lifespan of the administration.”

Asked about the speculations that Lee now wants to become the next king, not a kingmaker anymore, he said it is not an appropriate time to talk about it. He earned the “kingmaker” nickname after the GNP’s presidential victory in 2007 because he was a central figure in the Lee Myung-bak camp.

“Let’s talk about it some other time,” he said. “The political arena is disturbed because of the budget passage. If I talk about it right now, I will be called crazy. It is time to think about how to deal with next year’s politics and how to assist the president. Honestly, I am not interested in what I would do.”


By Lee Sang-il, Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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