Ending irresponsible presidency

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Ending irresponsible presidency

Public fury triggered by the revelation of unprecedented power abuses at the presidential level over the last month has turned into a civil rights movement. This mass movement is unlike the past massive resistances against military or authoritarian regimes. It embodies the public will to uphold the hard-won democracy and intolerance against irregularities undermining the Constitution. It has become our historic call to build angry and willful popular power into an orderly national reform process.

Since the state belongs to the people, the legitimacy — and efficacy — of the state’s chief executive authority would be challenged if the president breaks the public’s trust by abusing the power of the office. That’s the problem Korea faces today.

The president partly admitted to her wrongdoing and pledged to the people that she will incrementally surrender power and authority according to legal procedures by agreeing to a transitional power arrangement to be led by a legislature-appointed prime minister. She also vowed to fully cooperate with the prosecution’s investigation.

There was a slight hope that Korean politics can finally use the momentum of the nonpartisan government to repair old ways and reinvent the system. But that may have been wishful thinking, especially given the chaos and protracted lapse in state management we now see as deep-seated distrust, greed and conflicts of interest interfere with sensible actions and solutions.

President Park Geun-hye must take primary responsibility for the grave damage she has caused. But the structural blame can also be laid at the feet of the Korean presidential system, which has operated irresponsibly for decades now.

The mechanism of “checks and balances” that is used to rein in power and prevent a single president from becoming too powerful has never been institutionalized, making irresponsible presidencies therefore customary. The practices of the Blue House have become removed from the norms of a representative democracy in an open society.

Constitutional reforms to fix such dangerous loopholes were proposed many times, but the attempts were sabotaged by presidents and aspiring candidates. In a parliamentary democracy, in which the party with the greatest representation in the legislature forms the government and its leader, these entities are typically replaced once they lose public confidence.

In the Korean system, however, there is only the extreme action of impeachment to remove an offensive president, as it does not have such a clear exit rule as the parliamentary leadership system.

It may not be entirely a coincidence, therefore, that the six presidents elected through the direct election system since 1987 all faced serious questioning for the wrongdoings of themselves or their family members or aides.

A responsibility-immune presidential system may have been a fall-out from the long tradition of feudal political culture that often defied laws.

The academic and media community is partly responsible for taking a president’s disregard for the Constitution for granted. Our Constitution requires important public policies and appointments to be approved by the cabinet, and the members of the cabinet should be recommended by the prime minister and endorsed by the president.

Therefore, the prime minister’s recommendations for cabinet organization could be a constraint on the president’s authority. But everyone, including the intelligentsia and media, kept silent, even as the prime minister’s right to recommend cabinet members was utterly crushed under the president’s mighty power. We have all been accomplices to the offense of violating the Constitution.

We should not make the mistake of taking the wrong path in choosing the new direction for our Constitution — or in redefining the state leadership — out of rashness. The public does not want its politicians to avoid the option of impeachment just because it takes too much time, or to turn their faces away from constitutional revision for the same reason.

It would be simply unscrupulous — and shameless — for our politicians to rush to oust a problematic president and then fill the vacant seat with another irresponsible president in the following election. It is time to collect our breath and be more cool-headed.

Our Constitution lacks any other means than impeachment to punish a sitting president, and this may pressure politicians to come up with a political solution to uphold the country’s dignity.

If the president silently and incrementally exits from the front lines of government by retreating to the backseat — and if we establish a new nonpartisan cabinet — this could pave the way for political reform without doing damage to anyone.

This nation has prevailed over many tough challenges and endured many people who had too much power. Politicians must try to develop political solutions, protect public dignity and express their love for this nation.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 19, Page 31

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

Lee Hong-koo
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