Defining the prime minister’s roleSince direct presidential elections were introduced in 1987, candidates have promised to mitigate centralized executive power. Moon Jae-in, the candidate of the main opposition Democratic United Party, vowed that if he becomes president, he would exercise power strictly within the constitutional and legal jurisdiction and enhance the role of the prime minister to even out executive authority and obligation. Ahn Dae-hee, head of the Saenuri Party’s special committee on political reforms, said the ruling party is working on a proposal to similarly redefine the prime minister’s role and authority. In addition, the two major parties have floated the idea of formally empowering the head of the cabinet.
In the past, promises to enhance the role of the prime minister failed to go beyond the campaign trail. Candidates’ pledges to share executive power went out the window once they were seated in the presidential office.
Moon may have a political motive behind his power-sharing proposal - to draw formidable liberal rival Ahn Cheol-soo into his camp. Moon may have been emboldened by his rising approval rating and is hoping for a graceful concession from Ahn. In return for the software mogul-turned-professor stepping aside and the myriad young voters who would then move to Moon, the DUP candidate is assuring Ahn a share of authority and influence. What ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye fears most is a political marriage between Moon and Ahn. It is why Park’s camp campaigned hard to block a coalition and has not given up courting Ahn.
But marriages of convenience in the political world often go badly. In the 1997 presidential election, dissident candidate Kim Dae-jung joined hands with political adversary Kim Jong-pil with the promise of power sharing. But in less than two years, the coalition fell apart, sending politics and the government into disarray. President Roh Moo-hyun strengthened the role of Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan, but the latter remained legally at the mercy of the president. He had greater say as head of the cabinet only because the president, not the law, allowed it.
If they are serious about enhancing the role of the prime minister, the legislature must revise the law. The law should specify as a constitutional right the prime minister’s authority regarding cabinet appointments by placing the central appointment committee that reviews and recommends appointments of senior officials under the prime minister’s office.