The treacherous first year

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The treacherous first year

What is governance? It is best defined as a president’s actions and his or her performance in governing. A president can epitomize the zeitgeist, or the wants, expectations and interests of the people at the time. A shift of presidential power can, therefore, affect the standards and values of the people.

President Kim Dae-jung served as a provider of opportunity for the Jeolla province people and venture start-ups. President Roh Moo-hyun carved a bigger piece of the pie for the non-mainstream and the 1980s student movement generation in their 40s. President Lee Myung-bak brought back the construction and engineering industry and conservative values.

What can incoming president Park Geun-hye offer after her inauguration on Feb. 25?

The benefits may be in such areas as business related to welfare, local consumption and the job market. Such predictions can be made judging from Park’s comments, actions, campaign promises and operating style of her transition committee.

The final evaluation of Park could depend heavily on her first year, which kicks off next month. The first year is especially crucial to the single five-year presidential term allowed in Korea. Both the glories and disgraces of past presidents traced back to their first year in office. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that the first year defines the governance of a Korean president.

The first year should be mostly a honeymoon period for a new president. Then why have many failed? The fault lies largely with the forces that refused to accept their defeat in the presidential election. Resistance can be strong during the first year of a term. A president still new to power can err and provide opportunities for attack and criticism to watchful opponents who maintain the passion and eagerness of the campaign trail.

The Grand National Party, now the Saenuri Party, stood at the frontline in attacking President Roh. The conservative party started a lawsuit claiming that Roh’s victory was illegal, which led to a recount of 15 million votes. Their intransigence later led to a motion to impeach the president in which they used their majority in the legislature.

President Lee’s first year was equally turbulent. The president led the euphoric conservative forces back into power for the first time in a decade in 2008. But his dreams and hopes were dashed by the inflammatory protests against American beef imports triggered by a TV report raising questions about safety and mad cow disease. An angry crowd of 100,000 people holding candle carrying vigils marched from downtown to the presidential residence. Since the trauma of that experience, Lee began to withdraw from the public and kept his distance from politics. He lost his usual charisma and confidence and governed mostly in a defensive mode to avoid major protests rather than aggressively acting out his vision and will.

On the surface, the Lee administration’s decision to resume U.S. beef imports was the spark behind the nationwide rallies for more than three months. But in reality, those who refused to accept the election outcome were behind the organized anti-government campaign. The opposition Democratic Party (now the Democratic United Party) was dragged into them, losing its own voice and identity. The first year was, in fact, a crisis period with a vacuum of governing or political power.

So how can the new president successfully pass the difficult test of her first year? She should embrace and persuade her opponents while trying to make as few mistakes possible. Here is some advice for her:

First of all, Park should strictly manage her relatives and acquaintances. Private matters can deal a more fatal blow to a presidency than political or policy blunders. Lee was dogged by corruption scandals and ethical questions, and Roh increased his enemies thanks to his maverick comments and behavior. Park can also be the target of ethical or qualification questions if she doesn’t watch carefully her relatives and confidantes.

Second, she must be as fair and impartial as possible in appointments. Both of her predecessors came under criticism for partiality. Lee favored alumni from Korea University, elite members of his Presbyterian church in a posh southern Seoul neighborhood, and figures from his hometown in northern Gyeongsang Province. Roh was partial to the other side, indulging in favoritism toward dissidents and non-mainstream politicians. Park pledged fairness and broadness in appointments. She does not even have a so-called right-hand man - until now.

Third, she must make friends with the Democratic United Party. The main opposition party, currently in an emergency mode following its crushing defeat in the presidential election, criticizes those who defy the election result. That is different from five years ago.

Park should meet with the opposition party leadership and her former campaign rival Moon Jae-in to empower the authority of mainstream politics. The voices of her opponents will inevitably lose energy.

The new president must also respect and closely interact with the legislative. Roh’s philosophy rooted in the separation of politics and government and Lee’s aloofness and distance from lawmakers only isolated the presidential office and emboldened anti-government forces.

Park steps into power in a less hostile environment. The opposition party does not hold a majority power in the legislature as in the Roh administration and won’t likely be swayed by the dissident forces as in the incumbent government. At the end of the day, it all depends on the president’s will.


*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo and JTBC News 9 anchor.

by Chun Young-gi

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