Reform isn’t easyEven though we are accustomed to the gap between expectations and reality, frustration has grown as we watch the discussion about reforming the National Assembly. The people are paying attention but they are skeptical about actual changes being realized. For dramatic reforms to succeed, a hardworking leadership with the power of execution, a specific and realistic reform frame and support from those likely to benefit from reform should be united. As it is now, the only thing evident is that people are paying attention.
Let’s take a look at the lack of leadership in the National Assembly and political parties. The so-called attempt to surrender lawmakers’ perks requires a seasoned leadership, just like all self-reform processes. Social scientists who have studied system reform emphasize the role of leadership, because reform is a process to resolve the dilemma between the united interest of a few and the dispersed attention of the many.
Applying this to the attempt to surrender the lawmakers’ perks, the united interest of the lawmakers overwhelms the people’s earnest, but dispersed hopes for National Assembly reform. That is why reform sees no progress. A reformist leader is someone who has the courage to overcome this dilemma and the ability to convince and execute the reforms.
There are two reasons why we cannot find such leadership in the National Assembly and political parties. First, we have steadily separated the political parties in the legislature and the power structure of the Assembly over the past decade under the slogan of political reform. Candidates for party leader and presidential candidate are separate, while a floor leader is elected directly by lawmakers. Furthermore, the revised National Assembly Act strengthened the veto power of the minority parties.
Such division of power is a sign of progress in democracy, but on the other hand, it weakened internal cohesive forces. And the weakened unity of a political party leads to an organizational insensitivity to outside stimulations. The vicious factional fights in the Saenuri Party and the Minjoo Party of Korea are the political prices to be paid for the division of political parties. The serious unethical acts committed by some lawmakers were the outcome of the organizational insensitivity.
Second, the division of power inside the political parties has become more serious as the presidential election draws near. Presidential hopefuls who are capable of dominating the party are currently staying away from the political field, and the parties are subsequently weak to push forward changes. Hypothetically speaking, could the Minjoo and Saenuri presidential candidates treat the lawmakers’ nepotism and unethical collection of money from their aides with such a lukewarm attitude if it were July 2017, on the eve of the presidential election? In other words, the blind spot for reform will continue until the end of the year.
Another obstacle for National Assembly reform is a lack of meticulous reform scenarios. Social scientists who comparatively analyzed various reform processes said successful reform always requires a frame that can effectively summarize the existing problems while presenting a direction for the changes. If we look back on the series of political reforms we achieved in 2004, the role of the frame becomes even clearer.
When the laws governing political parties, political funds and election were revised in 2004, the entire process was directed by the goal of ending high-cost politics. At the time, we were focused on the enormous amount of money required for politics and shared the understanding that fixing that was the key to reform.
Because civic society’s demands were focused on a specific goal, the special political reform committee of the National Assembly was eventually forced to reform the expensive political structure by ending local party chapters, reducing the central party office and cutting suspicious political funding.
In order to bring about substantial change from the various discussions on the need for reform of the National Assembly, two changes must take place. First, we need a more focused frame, not the hazy concept of surrendering perks. It could be a recall election to root out corrupt lawmakers. It could be an initiative to end conflicts of interests. We need a reform frame with a clear goal. When the frame is specific, the people’s support will be united and resistance will fade. Furthermore, presidential hopefuls must start leading the reform right now. How can we expect leaders who are incapable of changing obsolete practices in the political arena to bring about a grand transformation of our society?
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 8, Page 31
*The author is a political science professor at Chung-Ang University.