Time for a constitutional debate

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Time for a constitutional debate

Nearly nine out of 10 lawmakers of the newly launched 19th National Assembly are in favor of constitutional reform that would allow for a two-term presidency, according to a joint survey by the JoongAng Ilbo and the Korean Association of Party Studies. As politicians from both camps agree on the need of rewriting the rule book, the time has arrived for serious thought and debate on the matter.

Ruling Saenuri Party Representative Lee Jae-oh is one of the avid proponents of such a move, but he, and others like him, have failed to garner the support of their legislative peers as well as the public, for two main reasons.

First, politicians’ call for reform is tied up with suspicions that they may have ulterior motives. Former President Roh Moo-hyun floated the idea in 2007, but it fell flat because it was seen as being part of his campaign strategy ahead of that year’s presidential election.

Supporters of President Lee Myung-bak also raised the issue, but they were accused of trying to undermine Representative Park Geun-hye, the former interim leader of the ruling Saenuri Party, who has never concealed her desire to run in the next presidential race.

Second, a majority of Koreans are deeply attached to the current constitution, which stands as the fruit of a nationwide democracy movement launched 25 years ago. Unlike previous, short-lived constitutions overseen by dictatorial leaders, the current one appears like a proud child of the people and has been instrumental in ushering in peaceful and democratic power transitions for over two decades.

As such, public support for the proposed constitutional revision is mixed at best, with around 50 percent in favor. But even those who see the logic in such a move are not passionate about it.

The world has changed dramatically over the last quarter of a century. The fundamental idea behind the current constitution was to constrain leaders from exercising too much power, with the five-year single-term presidency the primary mechanism in serving the purpose.

Up until now, the constitution has fulfilled its function admirably, but it has also shown its limits in the form of an excessive centralization of power and the shirking of responsibility.

Knowing he will not be responsible for events after his single-term ends, President Lee bulldozed his way through beef negotiations with Washington in the early stage of his term and recently agreed to a military pact with Tokyo without consulting either the National Assembly or the public.

Constitutional reform is necessary to fix such structural problems, and the changes should focus on the decentralization of power and the possibility of allowing the president to run for a second term. We need to pave the way for serious debate on the matter.
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