Time for ‘political invention’

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Time for ‘political invention’


Chang Dal-joong

We all remember June 1987. People rushed out to the streets, marched and cheered. What made them cheer? It was the June 29 declaration that announced direct presidential elections. With the establishment of the new Constitution, the so-called 1987 regime began.

However, the 1987 Constitution has become a subject of criticism today. Following in the steps of a National Assembly speaker, the floor leader of the opposition Democratic Party proposed a constitutional amendment. More than 200 lawmakers - the number required for an amendment - and the majority of the public appear to agree.

But President Park Geun-hye, who decides this process, opposes the move. She thinks discussing amendments can be a political black hole. But it won’t be easy to quiet the growing demands.

Why are we seeing demands for a constitutional amendment? Is it because the 1987 Constitution was undemocratic? Or is it because it was democratic but ineffective?

The first assumption appears to be wrong because the demands for an amendment are not challenging the democratic nature of the 1987 Constitution. These demands are more about the efficiency and effectiveness of the 1987 Constitution.

The 1987 Constitution was like drinking fresh water after eating some bitter food. It only tasted delicious because it came after decades of oppression from the Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan regimes. We all believed that everything would be fine once we resolved the crisis of legitimacy. At the time, it was a luxury to think about the efficiency and effectiveness of the new regime being born.

A quarter century has passed since democratization and no one is challenging the legitimacy of the administration. Instead, the public is questioning our leaders’ abilities to resolve the questions of economic growth, welfare, employment and national security because the issues of distribution, such as welfare, are overloading our democratic politics. The public is now questioning whether the 1987 system has the ability to resolve these issues.

Legitimacy is a necessary condition for maintaining a political system, but it can never be a sufficient condition because a political regime without the ability to govern is not sustainable. Like other democratic nations in the West, we are also suffering from a crisis of governance.

Let’s look at our reality. After the North’s sinking of the South’s warship, the Cheonan, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the Lee Myung-bak administration hosted emergency security meetings with ministers who largely had been exempt from military service. How can we expect them to have the ability to cope with a national security crisis?

How about the Park administration? Although it promised “grand national unity, creative economy and employment,” it has failed to present tangible outcomes amid extreme political confrontations.

Why are we seeing this crisis in governance? Many said it was because of the undesirable concentration of power with the president in the current imperialistic presidential system. It drives politics to extreme confrontations, so the framework of governance must be changed and decentralized in order to bring about governance through compromise.

As we all know, the most serious problem of the imperial presidential system is the division of legislative power between the Blue House and bureaucrats. When these combined forces work together, they can overwhelm the power of the National Assembly. That can cause opposition parties to resist with desperate, extreme measures. Under such circumstances, the government is the power, politics becomes a fight to win hegemony and a political party is like a military force, like satire by a foreign politician.

The outcome of these zero-sum games is a crisis in governance. When the winner takes all, the defeated must continue to fight the winner.

There is a famous saying that “governing is inventing,” and this is precisely what we need during this crisis of governance. Germany implemented that principle. By inventing a decentralized political system, it overcame its governance crisis.

We cannot, of course, underestimate the merits of the 1987 Constitution. But if the current governing crisis continues, we could face more serious problems because public dissatisfaction toward the government could spread to the entire political system.

That dissatisfaction has already been expressed in two ways. One is the move to restructure political forces, such as the “Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon.” But Ahn’s new party is still an attempt to find a gradual change within the existing system, and we have witnessed similar situations in other democracies in the West. This is not something we should worry about.

But it is worrisome that these problems can become the soil where radical forces, such as the “Lee Seok-ki phenomenon,” can grow. There are reports that youth unemployment is the highest since 1980, and we must not treat that situation lightly.

Right at this moment, we are in need of a political invention that can cure the crisis of governance. The discussions about a potential constitutional amendment must focus on how to find a resolution. It is time for the ruling and opposition parties to put their heads together to minimize the impact of a political black hole.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily.

*The author is a professor emeritus of political science at Seoul National University.

by Chang Dal-joong

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