Liberal candidate merger dilemmaWith what vision can the two liberal candidates Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic United Party and independent contender Ahn Cheol-soo persuade the electorate that their union will pave the way for substantial reform in Korean society? The run-up to the political coalition and the reform package will tell the story.
The process should be based on the values of democracy which are dialogue, debate and compromise and the basis of their joined forces on political reform. Their merger procedures should be guided by the art of finding common ground through dialogue and compromise, not by primaries or poll results. They must prove themselves by exercising political reform from the merger stage. Then they will gain support for their next task of socioeconomic reforms after they gain ruling power.
Political success in Korea is rewarded with power, prestige and wealth. It stems from the disgraceful Korean penchant and greed for prominence and wealth once seated in public office. The political reform campaign should aim to clean up the system. Otherwise, the efforts will be in vain. Political success should be restricted to authority, devotion, apt pay for service and honor. The president and politicians alike should give up wealth and individual power in exchange for authority to serve the nation.
The key to reforming the presidential office should be ensuring separation of power. Presidents have wielded omnipotent power and acted beyond their constitutional rights in the early stage and debilitated to a vegetative state in the later stage. The president should from the beginning exercise rights and authority defined by the Constitution according to the principle of trias politica. The authority to recommend cabinet members, for instance, should be returned to the prime minister as stipulated by the Constitution. When separation of power - under which no branch has more power than others - is ensured, balanced governance can naturally be practiced. The presidents hitherto have been violating the Constitution by exercising cabinet nominations.
The second part of reforming the presidency involves corruption. No president has been free of corruption charges since the direct presidential election was introduced in 1987. This underscores the need for radical measures. Surveillance and investigation of the president and their family members during the service term should demand cooperation between the presidential office, Board of Audit and Inspection, the prosecutors’ office and the police. State authority also should continue to watch changes in wealth, financial transactions and allegations of lobbying or other misdeeds after the president retires.
The next reform should target the legislature. The first mission should be removing all the prerogatives bestowed on lawmakers. Korean taxpayers have been too generous with them. Public expenditure per legislator exceeded the per capita gross domestic product by 6.42 times as of 2009, compared with 2.93 times for Germany, 2.68 times for France and 2.95 times for the U.K.
Actual spending has also been similar to these advanced nations. In 2012, the numbers are largely unchanged at the European nations - 2.94 times in Germany, 2.61 times in France and 2.66 times in Britain. But the figures remain comparatively high in Korea - at 5.34 times.
Although we still earn much less than these countries, we pay more in tax spending for legislators. Compared to the international standard, Korea’s legislative budget is small and needs to be enlarged. But the fact that the expenditure is used largely to support lawmakers underscores that there is little left to spend on actual legislative work - research, policy development and interaction with the public.
One effective way to transform the legislature is to have it open for sessions all year round. The National Assembly should be open except for summer and winter break for discussions and service for the people. How much do our representatives know and study about the range of issues like childbirth, child care, education, jobs, worker rights, the aging society, the North Korean nuclear situation and Dokdo? A year-round session would be the answer to make the legislature work.
The top-down nomination system should also be scrapped and so should the proportional representative system based on an electoral list of party favorites. The regional imbalance on votes and legislative seats that violate the proportional representation should be fixed.
If we can lower spending per lawmaker to levels of advanced countries, we would be able to increase the number of legislators and turn the legislature into a true representative democracy. The reform work is relatively simple - democratize the nominating system, reduce spending and increase the scale and role.
If the Moon-Ahn coalition fails to demonstrate a will toward reform, voters will likely choose Park Geun-hye. If not for reform, they should settle for security. Self-reformation is where creativity and reinvention begin. If novelty and reform fall short of expectations, the politically immature cannot beat the politically conservative. The history of democracy has been witness to the resilience of the conservative against the challenge of the politically immature.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a political science professor of Yonsei University.
By Park Myung-rim