[Viewpoint] How strong a president?

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[Viewpoint] How strong a president?

For the last week, we have witnessed how it can be harder for a president in office to fulfill a campaign pledge than it is to get elected in the first place.

Dispensing campaign promises with profligacy to win votes during a campaign may be an inevitable flaw in the democratic political system. Yet we may have to rethink our candidates’ platforms and how we view them. Candidates’ rhetorical recklessness can jeopardize the nation.

The election calendar is set: by-elections on April 27, general elections a year later and the presidential election in December 2012. With voters still enraged, disappointed or just plain perplexed by President Lee Myung-bak’s tossing away of a campaign promise to build an international airport in the southeast, no candidates or political parties will dare to present an ambitious platform without solid facts and figures backing it up.

They will surely have to get a whole lot more creative in coming up with promises that will convince once-burned-twice-shy voters.

For instance, politicians will have to prepare themselves to answer difficult questions about the aging nuclear power plants in the country following the near meltdown and radiation releases at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan.

Will they promise to close them down and replace them with newer and safer technologies? If so, where will they come up with the money for such an enormous undertaking? If the politician says he or she doesn’t want to give up on nuclear power, what will he or she do to ensure its safety? The University of California, Berkeley has been running a course on “Physics for Future Presidents,” teaching the science and technology of weapons of mass destruction, the global energy crisis and global warming for aspiring leaders. It is a pity that our leaders don’t have the essential science educations they need in this modern world.

While we’re on the topic of more sensible and responsible campaign platforms, presidential candidates and parties should also clarify their positions on key issues regarding constitutional reform. Despite a broad consensus that Korea’s democracy has outgrown the Constitution, established in 1948 and slightly modified in 1987, politicians have been avoiding the debate for various political reasons.

Parties and candidates aspiring to run in next year’s presidential race should make their stance clear on what kind of power structure they envision in a new constitution and promise to work for such an overhaul in governance during their tenure.

Even if the preamble of the Constitution claims otherwise, all power in this country derives from the president, not the people. Many have repeatedly called for reducing the omnipotent power of the president in order to strengthen the roles of the legislature and other branches of government.

Yet some argue that strong presidential authority is necessary to unite the country at times of tumultuous international developments and tension with North Korea. Many have also been reacquainted with the need for strong leadership after watching the poor crisis management in Japan in the wake of last month’s earthquake and tsunami. We need wisdom to seek a way to balance the concentration and separation of power.

It’s not like there haven’t been efforts to change the 1948 Constitution in the past. While upholding the presidential system, the Constitution has been revised several times after changes in various domestic and external factors, including efforts to increase the power of the prime minister.

Article 86 stipulates that the prime minister is appointed by the president upon approval of the National Assembly, ensuring balanced governance through the prime minister’s role as a bridge between the administration and legislature. Article 87 says cabinet members should be named by the president on recommendations from the prime minister, which distributes power.

The prime minister’s role of recommending the cabinet, however, has often been ignored by presidents. The upcoming presidential candidates and their parties should let us know their vision for the role of the president and prime minister. Then the voters can decide what kind of power structure they want to see in the future.

*The writer is a former prime minister and advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Hong-koo
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