Constitutions can change
In Seoul, as in Washington - but unlike many European democracies - party politics are hard-fought and bruising. Like Democrats and Republicans, the Saenuri Party and NPAD hardly ever see eye-to-eye on anything. Bipartisanship has become an endangered species.
So it is rare indeed for a cross-party cause to get the support of over half the National Assembly.
On Oct. 2, the JoongAng Ilbo reported that 152 lawmakers support amending the Constitution in two ways. The cabinet should be picked by the parliament, not the president. And presidents should serve for four years instead of five, but be permitted a second term as in the United States.
Saenuri leader Kim Moo-sung voiced support for changes but was slapped down by a sour Blue House, which even dissed his apology for raising the issue. What better illustration of the critics’ argument that Korea suffers from an overweening imperial presidency?
As a candidate, Park Geun-hye endorsed constitutional reform, but on this as much else office has changed her. In a striking phrase, she called it a “black hole” that would distract both the government and public from focusing on what really matters: fixing the economy.
Yet the president must be acutely aware that she is already falling victim to the very problem that constitutional change would resolve. Korea’s quarter century of democracy has surely shown beyond doubt that a single presidential term of five years is too short. Even a good president risks becoming a lame duck in his or her final year; a weak one, sooner than that.
Of course, voters must have the chance to boot out a bad leader. But they should also have the right to re-elect someone who is doing a good job. Allowing this would remove the lame-duck stigma and improve policy continuity, predictability and government efficiency. Also, holding presidential and legislative elections together, as in the United States, would be much less expensive.
We have been here before. Such a shift has often been mooted, most recently in 2007 by then-President Roh Moo-hyun. But he raised it far too late, with a presidential election just weeks away. Then the issue lapsed again, thereby missing what would have been the best chance to effect a change: in 2012, a year that saw both kinds of election held just a few months apart.
Roh was less keen on the other plank, a better balance between executive and legislature. This plea for a stronger cabinet is even older. In 1998, Kim Jong-pil made it his price for serving as prime minister under Kim Dae-jung, who reneged on the deal. (Still, a coalition - however opportunist - between a liberal president and a rightist premier is quite a thought nowadays.)
Constitutional reform is best done one step at a time, rather than at one fell swoop. A better balance between the presidency and parliament is desirable but also tricky. With so many variant models to choose from - France, Germany, Austria and more, each have their champions and differences of detail - this could indeed be a can of worms, a Pandora’s box, or a black hole.
By contrast, aligning elections a la the United States is simple. The main problem is timing, but that is not insuperable. If the wheels start turning now, to allow scope both for debate and the necessary referendum, then Park’s successor could be elected in December 2017 for a four-year term (2018-21), with re-election allowed once (2022-25). The new National Assembly due to be elected in April 2016 could then exceptionally sit for five and a half years until December 2021, when both elections would come into alignment. It would be messy, but it is feasible.
My own country’s first elected female leader, the redoubtable Margaret Thatcher, famously said that “the lady’s not for turning.” Steadfastness is a virtue, but only a thin line separates it from stubbornness, which is a vice. Pragmatism is another virtue, as is admitting one was wrong.
Might President Park change her mind on constitutional reform as she has on other matters? I fear not. She appears adamantly against even discussing this, and the new cross-party consensus seems to be that the issue is dead for the foreseeable future.
That is a pity. Policy continuity, predictability and government efficiency are all impaired by the status quo. For that reason I confidently predict that the constitutional reform issue will be raised again in a few years’s time, and again and again until the change is made.
If, as many fear, Park herself succumbs all too soon to lame duck syndrome, she may come to regret her stance. It is not too late for her to reconsider, to start the ball rolling, and to leave at least one lasting legacy for which posterity and all shades of opinion would surely thank her.
*The author is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University in the UK.
by Aidan Foster-Carter