Assembly peace comes at a price

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Assembly peace comes at a price

The embarrassing brawls among lawmakers on the floor of the National Assembly, frequently shown on news programs in foreign countries, have been absent for the past year and a half. The reason: starting on May 30, 2012, the legislature started enforcing the so-called National Assembly Advancement Law - technically National Assembly Act Article 85 - which instituted new rules for the advancement of bills to a vote in the main chamber.

Those rules prevented the ruling party from railroading government-proposed bills without discussion and the possibility of compromise with the opposition. The fisticuffs on the floor of the Assembly (and in the hallways outside) were expressions of impotent rage as bills were railroaded through - thus their nickname, “Korean filibusters.”

But if the act brought physical peace, it had a less-positive effect as well. On issues that eluded compromise, legislation simply got stuck in limbo. As a result, some analysts say, the National Assembly has been transformed from animal to vegetable.

An example of the logjam created by the new rules is a revision of the Government Organization Act, which was supposed to be enforced in tandem with the launch of the Park Geun-hye administration, was originally scheduled to be approved during last January’s session of the Assembly, but lawmakers didn’t pass it until March 22 - 26 days after Park was inaugurated.

For the past decade, the Assembly has missed the legal deadline for passing the yearly budget bill, which is in early December. But for the past two years, it has also missed the customary deadline of passing it before the year ended. The budget for last year was passed at 6:04 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2013, and for the next at 5:15 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2014. Ruling and opposition lawmakers were squabbling until beyond the last minute of each year.

The way the new rules work is that the Assembly speaker’s right to put a bill to a vote is limited. Three-fifths or more of the lawmakers must agree to introduce disputed bills for a main vote. Three-fifths is more than the ruling party’s majority.

The new rules work too well and get in the way of bills being passed, the ruling Saenuri Party now says. Last November, it started looking for ways to have the law declared unconstitutional.

Choi Kyung-hwan, Saenuri Party floor leader, said the law is “hurting procedural democracy and the principle of majority rule, forcing into limbo a series of bills dedicated to reviving the economy.”

But at the core of the vegetative Assembly lies a more fundamental problem in Korean politics: a time-honored and seemingly eternal ideological split.

“Korean lawmakers have adopted this attitude of looking at the world as groups that share ideological identity, strictly divided into conservatism and liberalism,” says Chae Jin-won, professor of political science at Kyung Hee University. “That unavoidably gave birth to this dichotomy that allies are an absolute virtue and opponents are absolute evil.”

The split is a result of a chain of modern historical events such as the division of the peninsula and the 1950-53 Korean War, the military regimes of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and the democratic movement. The so-called 1987 system, which refers to the constitutional amendments that launch a single-term, five-year presidential system, contributes to the enduring schism, analysts and lawmakers say.

“The 1987 constitutional system enables a party belonging to the president that has garnered over 51 percent of the votes to monopolize power entirely,” says Nam Kyung-pil, a lawmaker with the Saenuri Party, “whereas the voice of the losers who didn’t win a majority is silenced. That structure can only intensify the political fight.”

Lee Nae-young, a professor of political science at Korea University, says the ideological gap among lawmakers is wider than among the people as a whole, which is a big problem.

“Korean politicians are not fighting over issues that citizens are desperate to see solved,” he says, “but about those that they think are important.”

While voters who support either the conservative Saenuri Party or the liberal Democrats have retained a similar level of ideological disagreement in recent years, the gap is widening between lawmakers on the two sides of the divide, a survey of lawmakers by the JoongAng Ilbo shows.

The survey gauges the ideological tendency of the parties by asking its lawmakers questions. It then assigns a number for the party’s ideological level at that particular time. Numbers closer to zero represent liberal positions and numbers closer to 10 are conservative.

The survey calculates the ideological gap between the parties by subtracting the lower number from the higher.

During the 16th National Assembly that began in 2000, the ideological gap was 1.7, which grew to 1.9 in the 17th Assembly; 2.4 in the 18th; and 3.2 in the current Assembly.

The DP’s ideological score shifted to the left, from 3.8 in the previous Assembly to 2.7 in the current.

In contrast, a poll of average voters by the Korean Social Science Data Center, a private think tank, shows that the ideological difference between those supporting the Saenuri Party and those supporting the Democrats has narrowed from 2.95 in 2004 to 2.07 in 2008 and 2.4 in 2012.

“The ideological gap in Korea is being amplified by the political system, rather than being resolved,” said Lee Nae-young, professor of political science at Korea University.

Political scientists also point to a problem in the Korean culture of leaders and hard-liners of a party setting the agenda and forcing the rest of the members to follow - without much of an opportunity for constructive discussion, flexibility and compromise.

For instance, when DP lawmakers were divided over whether to approve the foreign investment bill on Dec. 31, which was tabled by the ruling Saenuri Party, some moderate lawmakers proposed that it be put on a vote. The DP leaders did not agree and proceeded with opposing the bill - on the grounds that it originated from the ruling party.

In the Saenuri Party, a controversy emerged on Oct. 2 over whether or not to nominate former Representative Suh Chung-won, a well-known politician and supporter of President Park, to be a candidate in an Oct. 30 by-election in Gyeonggi. Some lawmakers opposing Suh’s nomination - because he served two prison terms for violating election-finance laws - proposed a general meeting for a discussion. The party leaders ignored them and proceeded with his nomination. Suh won the election, making a political comeback.

“Reaching a conclusion after discussion is hugely different from a party leadership designating a conclusion without holding a proper debate,” said a second-term lawmaker with the Saenuri, who asked not to be named. “The general meetings of the party have recently been changed into a venue for announcing guidelines from the Blue House.”

“This forced unification of party platforms should be changed except for those issues that define the party’s identity and ideology,” said Jang Seung-jin, professor of political science at Kookmin University. “Political parties should allow members to vote on the majority of issues.”

Parties in Korea are usually led by powerful figures with hard-line views. In the Saenuri Party, for example, over 100 lawmakers follow 20 powerful figures - and if they rebel or dissent, they could be denied party nominations in the next general election, which are decided by the bigwigs.

“Lawmakers cannot help but be prudent when it comes to voicing their own opinion when they are concerned over their nomination by the party in the following term,” said Lee Jung-hee, professor of politics at Hankook University of Foreign Studies.

“Both ruling and opposition parties should adopt a new nomination system that lets party members and lawmakers vote to nominate the candidates, starting in the local election coming up in June.”

BY KIM JUNG-HA, SEO JI-EUN [spring@joongang.co.kr]

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