Remodeling democracy

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Remodeling democracy


Lee Hong-koo

More and more people are worried about and disappointed in South Korean politics. Such widespread disillusionment and criticisms have not been orchestrated or planned. The frustration over repeated examples of political incompetence and irresponsibility has been caused by a dreary legislative stalemate and a very political rail workers’ strike at the year-end. What has been unleashed is a deep skepticism about our political leaders’ ability to run the country.

Before it is too late, the political world must seriously ruminate the state of their realm and join forces to come up with a plan to end the historical chapter of democracy and modernization, a shared achievement by six presidents over the last three decades since the direct vote was institutionalized in the 1987 constitutional reform as the result of Korea’s mass democratization movement. We must move onto the next stage by ushering the country safely past the current transitional phase in international politics.

Because a society and nation are living organisms, any work to redesign or reconstruct the 1987 constitutional system requires extreme patience and concentrated wisdom, which are a far cry of the euphoric and emotional response we saw at the time of its birth. Some are tempted to cry out for outright constitutional reform, but that would only give an excuse for endless wrangling in view of the current contentious political and social environment.

In order to fix the dysfunctionalities in our system, we first need an accurate examination and diagnosis, followed by prescriptions handed out to not only the politicians but to society as a whole. Debate on a constitutional amendment will be necessary in order to enforce the prescriptions. But before embarking on reconstruction, examination of the current state of Korean democracy is essential.

Democracy has been challenged in both mature democracies and developing societies around the world in the 21st century. The Korean-style democracy, based on the political and constitutional system of 1987, has survived some tumultuous times. We, therefore, need not seek a replacement of the 1987 system. But remolding is necessary to do away with outdated and unjust practices that get in the way of the country’s advance toward a mature democratic welfare society.

What must come first is study of the limitations of the 1987 system.

We all firmly believe in the basic idea of the 1987 system: a single, five-year presidential term to preclude extended rule by a single leader, which was a burning need after decades of long authoritarian regimes. But we have matured enough to seriously consider the option of a presidency of two four-year terms as in the United States. This would allow an incumbent president to extend his or her term through a re-election against rival candidates.

The trick is to institutionalize a mechanism to contain a concentration of power. This exposes a paradox. We long for strong leadership to act fast and decisively at the right time instead of through lengthy discussions. But we also oppose and fear any undue concentration of power. This underscores our preference for a presidential system over parliamentary rule.

The centerpiece for the remodeling work should be normalizing the representative system, which could contain any excessive power wielded by the president by strengthening the role and status of the National Assembly and political parties.

Even after nearly 30 years, many still wonder who represents who in the Korean representative system. In the first half of 1988-2003, people more or less accepted the politics of compromise and a symbiotic power arrangement among the so-called three Kims - Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil - who, with the help of minority group support, realized the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy.

After the exit of the powerful Kims, the local political scene over the last decade has been one muddled contest after another between the left and right, the liberals and conservatives. The fight between the extreme right and left dominated our politics as if it represented overall public opinion, which it did not. And that became a huge flaw in our representative democracy, which has been demoralizing to the public.

As a result, politics ended up aggravating social conflict, not smoothening it out. Moderates, the middle-of-the-roaders who should be responsible for balance in democratic politics, were marginalized. Over the last decade, politics only backtracked. Extending the middle ground is the next urgent goal of the remodeling of our political system.

Gone are the days when people are asked to choose between the traditional conservative and liberal side, or between the state and market. Modern political theories conclude that a country’s progress eventually relies on finding the right balance between the potential and capabilities of the state and market.

Political parties must try to bridge the gap among different classes and widen the middle zones for the nation. They should offer a politics of unity rather than disintegration before it’s too late. Only then can the real work of fixing or repairing the constitutional system start and be carried out smoothly.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hong-koo

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