The wrong approachThere are three facts we need to pay attention to in the current process to amend the constitution. The first is that the president is handling the issue based on the notion that he is following through with a campaign pledge. The second is that broad revisions, ranging from the preamble to basic rights, the form of the government and local autonomy, are being promoted. The ideas being promulgated can be compared to writing a new constitution. The third fact is that there is a shockingly short period of time for preparations if the goal is to hold a national referendum in June, concurrent with local elections, for this massive amendment bill.
As we can see, this bold idea was possible because of the candlelight vigils that led to the impeachment of President Moon Jae-in’s predecessor, often referred to as the “candlelight revolution” by the liberals.
The Blue House and ruling party, with an aim to realize the passions of the liberals, are attempting to write a new constitution that will reinforce democratic values and ideology in almost all areas.
A constitution is not about a certain government’s policy vision or a certain social group’s values and ideology. It is a law that is the basis of a nation. It contains the principles and method of organizing a government. It upholds universal values such as an individual’s freedom and equalities and rights that are accepted and obeyed by all citizens.
At the same time, it includes the basic principles and procedures for political competition. The constitution systemizes conditions and rules to allow all competing political and social forces to participate in an election and a political process without being excluded or discriminated against.
Therefore, the constitution can only work effectively when it represents the general interest, not the interest of a part of a society. A constitutional amendment to seek factional or special interests with biases must be impossible in a democracy.
When the government pushes a constitutional amendment that was a campaign pledge, the current government’s interests, political views and its ideals of democracy are inevitably reflected.
Any discussion of the amendment will directly lead to a relationship between factional and short-term interests and a conflict between conservatives and liberals. If this happens, it is impossible from the beginning to find political room for rational debate and a pragmatic compromise between different values and views.
What was behind the candlelight vigils? Were they about politics or the constitution? I have never seen a serious discussion of those incredibly important issues. The demand for a constitutional amendment was first raised during the candlelight vigils and opinions and demands that arose during the process formed the agenda for the amendment.
The extremely wide range of revisions reflects this phenomenon. Before discussing a more important and greater issue, the constitutional amendment bill ended up having to include many demands from various sectors through the candlelight vigils. Therefore, the discussion about the amendment failed to address grand matters of politics and the society as a whole; a certain group’s interests, values and opinions competed to form the agenda for the amendment, and ideological conflicts surrounding the agenda became the center of the discussion.
If the current administration truly wants to amend the constitution productively, it must pay attention to the argument by Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori that the most important principle in designing a constitution is that constitutions are and must be “content-neutral.” As he said, a constitution is to establish a method to create a direction for a community to move forward. It is not to designate the direction itself.
It is, therefore, appropriate that the amendment bill excludes items that prompt ideological conflicts that affect a balance of power between the conservatives and the liberals or among competing social forces or that reflect certain interests or demands of certain groups.
From this perspective, it is undesirable to newly introduce historic events that are related to the national foundation or democratization in the preamble. Including a certain socioeconomic concept or content of an economic operation in the constitution is also inappropriate.
If the Moon Jae-in administration truly wants to make a meaningful amendment that can contribute to the advancement of Korea’s democracy, it must stop the amendment led by the Blue House. The job must be handed over to the National Assembly, and the ruling and opposition parties must deliberate the agenda. They must start a discussion right now on the most important topics: a new form of government and election system.
Translation by Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, March 5, Page 35
*The author is a professor emeritus of Korea University.