A significant political experimentPresident Lee Myung-bak announced yesterday that he will aim for fair legislative and presidential elections this year while maintaining his membership of the ruling Saenuri Party. We welcome his decision. However, President Lee must maintain neutrality in both elections to justify his statement.
Under presidential systems like Korea’s and the United States’, a president and the ruling party both take responsibility for the government. Especially in Korea, almost all of the government’s policies are finalized by consultations between the executive branch and the ruling party, and the ruling party takes the lead in passing government-sponsored legislations, along with a number of lawmakers who join the cabinet. The president’s performance affects the election results of the ruling party and vice versa. Under this structure, the president and the ruling party share a common destiny when they take power. In the same vein, no president has left the ruling party in the U.S. even after historic scandals such as Watergate.
In Korea, however, presidential departures from the ruling parties at the end of their terms has become a routine, which basically stems from presidents’ fatal misgovernance and sharp discords between incumbents and presidential aspirants. In 1992, President Roh Tae-woo and Kim Young-sam, then-presidential candidate for the ruling Democratic Liberty Party, brawled over Roh’s granting of the right to operate mobile telecommunication businesses to SK Group. The SK chairman’s son got married to Roh’s daughter. Kim also called for a cabinet reshuffle drastic enough to fairly manage the presidential election, and Roh drew the line by leaving the ruling party.
In 1997, friction between the ruling Grand National Party presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang and President Kim Young-sam was far sharper - to the extent that the pro-Lee faction burned an effigy of Kim at a rally for a political grudge. President Kim eventually left the party only one month before the presidential election in the same year. In May 2002, President Kim Dae-jung departed from the Democratic Party after apologizing for his sons’ involvement in various types of corruption in order to not lift a political burden onto presidential candidate Roh Moo-hyun.
Now President Lee Myung-bak must keep neutrality in both elections while retaining his party membership by keeping in mind the weird history of self-imposed presidential departures from ruling parties.