[Viewpoint] Love Jeremy Lin without stereotypesTwenty five years have passed since the bloody democratization movement brought about constitutional reform for South Koreans to vote their presidents into office. We achieved our goal of democratization in 1987, the turning point that freed the people from autocracy and ensured their political freedoms. We hear few complaints about interference in political activities and oppression of free speech.
But we nevertheless face an equally formidable challenge of resolving inequalities in today’s society. And this challenge is not one that can be addressed through diplomatic negotiations or constitutional changes.
The ongoing political ferment and instability in the Arab world underscores the fact that a successful democracy movement that brings down a dictatorship does not ensure an overnight establishment of a truly democratic state. South Korea can be a role model in that regard since it has experienced a series of peaceful power transitions and a history-making changing of governments from conservative to liberal and back again.
But despite its achievements, South Korean politics have always been tumultuous in ways that can be dangerous. South Koreans envy the maturity of the Japanese, who unwaveringly uphold democratic political procedures despite catastrophic natural disasters and a very prolonged recession.
The January 14 presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan were equally exceptional. Despite the poles-apart ideologies of the Kuomintang and opposition Democratic Progressive Party over questions of sovereignty and mainland China, the election was orderly and the opposition accepted its defeat gracefully and maturely. That’s another scene that can be envied by South Koreans, who are already swept up in a clamorous contest between the conservatives and liberals ahead of the April general election and December presidential election.
This year, we once again see the very Korean tradition of a party trying to abandon its president at the end of his term, which the last five presidents had to go through and the current president is now facing uncomfortably. If a single-term president is divorced by the party that elected and supported him and quietly exits from the political scene, who should be held accountable for the previous five years of governance? One man alone? If that is the case, how can such a system promise democratic politics that the people can trust?
Looking back at our 25 years of experimenting with democratic politics, the Koreans kept lurching forward despite serious constitutional defects, caught up in the cycle of election races and the struggle to gain power. Instead of giving up on hopes for better democratic principles from Korean politicians, we must raise our voices to tell them that power not only comes from the people, but those who exercise it must be answerable to the people.
When the bipartisan research group Future Korea Constitutional Committee, comprised of 186 lawmakers, proposed an outline of a rewritten Constitution, there was hope that our hobbled political system could finally be fixed. But such hopes were dashed when little interest was shown by the ruling and opposition party executives. Politicians all criticize the concentration of power in the presidential office, yet they cannot resist the temptation of leaving it that way just long enough for them to get a taste of it.
We cannot expect constitutional change with elections just two months away. But we must at least see pledges of commitment from parties and candidates to end practices that discount or undermine the Constitution to build hope for a turning point in our democratic system.
A prime minister, for instance, is a minister the president appoints with the approval of the National Assembly. The Constitution ensures his credibility because it comes from both the president and the legislature.
And yet the prime minister’s authority to nominate and dismiss cabinet ministers has never been respected.
Fixes of these constitutional oversights can help dilute the heavy-handed authority of the president as well as normalize the role of the legislature and political parties.
Korean politics have hit a bottleneck in making greater progress toward efficiency and democracy, and not just because of a few incompetent individuals. It could return to the right path if we do away with our habitual disrespect of the Constitution.
by Lee Hong-koo
* The author is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.