Committee agrees to end 5-year system

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Committee agrees to end 5-year system

The National Assembly’s special committee on revising the Constitution agreed unanimously on Wednesday that the current single five-year presidential term should be abolished, though it fell short of deciding what system should replace it.

The committee, comprised of 15 lawmakers across party affiliations, all consented that a change in the current presidential system is inevitable, though it may take weeks, if not months, before it can come up with an agreement on what new system should take over the current format that has been in place since 1987.

Rep. Lee Cheol-woo of the ruling Saenuri Party said an overwhelming number of the 15 committee members preferred a presidential system with less power than the current one. “But many had different thoughts on the formation of the government,” Lee said. “Some called for a semi-presidential system akin to Austria’s while some wanted the head of state elected by the parliament. Others want a complete cabinet system.”

While there are a number of options to bring changes to the current system, revision advocates are generally divided along two lines: One calling for the adoption of the U.S. presidential system in which a president is allowed a second four-year term, while the other advocates a semi-presidential system similar to the one adopted by France and Austria, where a president manages foreign affairs while a prime minister takes care of domestic affairs.

The committee’s ongoing work reflects growing calls from the public that the time has come to fix the current structure stipulated by the 1987 Constitution, which re-instated a direct presidential election after years of governance by military dictatorships. The 1987 Constitution bans presidents from seeking second terms.

Critics say the 1987 Constitution bestows too much authority on the president without adequate checks and balances. For instance, while cabinet nominees have to be confirmed by the Senate with a simple majority in the United States, ministerial-level nominees in South Korea are not constrained by such a process. Ministerial appointees are only required to attend confirmation hearings at the National Assembly, which does not have binding power to reject appointments.

Yoon Hee-wong, a senior analyst at pollster Opinion Live, told the Korea JoongAng Daily that the semi-presidential system practiced by France would satisfy the growing demand for a president with less power while also meeting the demand that the head of state be directly elected by the people, rather than by its parliament, the National Assembly.

“While the public understands there should be more restraints on presidential power,” Yoon said, “people have negative perceptions about a cabinet system in which parliamentary members select the national leader.”

To diminish presidential power, the special committee agreed to turn the Board of Audit and Inspection into either an independent body or entity belonging to the National Assembly. The state-run watchdog is currently a presidential body, causing some to question how it is supposed to keep the executive branch in check while being subject to executive authority. Regarding conscientious objectors, or those who refuse to perform mandatory military duty on moral grounds, the committee agreed to continue disallowing objectors from substituting their military service with other forms of public service, citing the country’s military standoff with North Korea.

One thing to watch is whether the amendment bill could be submitted to the Assembly floor for a vote and then put up for a national referendum for final passage before the presidential election, which could take place as early as this spring, pending the Constitutional Court’s decision to remove President Park from power. If the court decides to dethrone Park, an election must be held within 60 days.

The ruling Saenuri Party and politicians Sohn Hak-kyu and Kim Moo-sung outside the Democratic Party (DP) have been pushing to revise the Constitution before this year’s election, citing the perils of the current system. But the rush is opposed by the DP and its frontrunner, Moon Jae-in, who says an early amendment is merely a ploy by the ruling party to keep its grip.

“The opposition party doesn’t want to bring the issue of the constitutional revision because it could undermine its framing strategy that this year’s election must be a judgement of the conservative ruling party,” said Yoon of Opinion Live, who said while it was physically possible to pass the amendment bill, it would not be an easy task to do so given the opposition’s objection.

To pass the amendment, at least 200 out of the Assembly’s 300 lawmakers must agree to put it up for a national vote. The DP alone has 121 lawmakers under its wing. For the national vote, at least half the eligible voters should participate in voting to render the voting outcome valid. Of the cast votes, a majority of votes are required to pass the amendment bill.

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

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