Assembly committee formed to change charter

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Assembly committee formed to change charter

The ruling Saenuri Party and three other main political groups in the National Assembly agreed Wednesday to form a 36-member special parliamentary committee to amend the Constitution, taking a step closer to the first revision of the charter in 29 years.

Under the agreement, the opposition Minjoo will contribute 14 members to the special committee, while the Saenuri Party, whose number of representatives shrank to 99 from 128 after a mass defection Tuesday, will contribute 12.

The People’s Party will have five seats while the new conservative party planned by the 30 lawmakers who defected from the Saenuri Party will have four. The splinter Justice Party will have one seat.

Discussions over revising the Constitution - last changed in 1987 - are expected to intensify with many Saenuri lawmakers demanding revisions that take effect before the presidential election next year.

Under the current Constitution, a president is barred from re-election following a single five-year term. The ban on a second-presidential term reflects the country’s history of military governments that ruled as long as they could.

In 1987, Korea re-introduced direct presidential elections, which had been suspended for 16 years by strongmen Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan.

The current system has been criticized for giving too much power to the president but not enough time for substantial achievements.

There are a number of proposals being discussed. One is adopting a semi-presidential system in which a president wields power over foreign affairs while a prime minister and the cabinet handle domestic affairs.

France has a form of this system. Another idea is to follow Britain’s Westminster system. Yet another alternative is the U.S.-style presidential system that allows a president to seek a second term while shortening the term to four years.

It is far from clear whether the political parties can come to agreement on such a major change prior to the presidential election, which will be held within 60 days if President Park Geun-hye is forced to resign by the Constitutional Court.

It is preparing to try her on impeachment charges approved by the National Assembly on Dec. 9. The court is required to deliver a ruling by June 6.

Moon Jae-in, the presidential frontrunner, opposes constitutional change prior to the presidential election, saying the movement to change the Constitution before the election is a ploy by the Saenuri to continue its grip in power.

While a majority of Saenuri lawmakers call for constitutional change prior to the election, some opposition lawmakers also agree on the need for the pre-election constitutional change, including Rep. Kim Boo-kyum and Rep. Kim Chong-in of the Minjoo.

The People’s Party, which has 38 lawmakers, adopted an immediate constitutional amendment as its official party platform in a move to put further pressure on the frontrunner Moon.

But with Moon’s strong objection, it is unlikely the Minjoo would support fast change when its chances of winning back the Blue House are high considering the impeachment of the president and its approval ratings, which are the best for any party.

To pass an amendment, yes votes from two thirds of lawmakers, or 200, are required to put the bill for a national referendum. At least half of eligible voters must take part in the referendum for it to be valid. A majority of the referendum votes are required for final passage. National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun expressed doubts Wednesday that revising the constitution would be “physically” possible if the election is held much earlier than its original December schedule - in case President Park is removed from office.

“To properly amend the Constitution, we need some time to reflect on a public consensus and for the political parties to narrow down their differences, not to mention prepare for a national referendum,” said the speaker during a meeting with senior journalists, “We can’t rush it in 60 days.”

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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