Addressing the super-presidency
The author is a professor of political science at Chung-Ang University and a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.
Presidential elections can be a rudder that regularly checks and navigates a new direction in the fickle politics of democracy. Korean voters go to the polls every five years to reset their community’s path based on the trajectory of their past choices. Election can also be a melting pot of a multifaced democracy. Thousands of demands and aspirations blend into the campaign platforms of candidates.
Since the political clock revolves around the president, various challenges and anxieties of Korean society stack up on the stage leading up to the presidential election in 2022, from specific debates on basic income and proposals for a sustainable economy and restoration of the middle class to figurative goals to enhance fairness and reason.
My focus for the eight-monthlong marathon of the presidential race brimming with glamorous promises and policy ideas is on how to ease the mighty power of our presidential system. The president has always been mighty in Korea, but over the last decade, the president has become some kind of supernatural figure. The president transcends the legislature and judiciary and decides the boundaries and standards of individuals’ freedom as well as defining political right and wrong.
How has our society come to join the global trend of super-presidency? With such unlimited power, why is the president unable to solve imperative problems? And can we prevent another all-mighty president in the next election?
On the first question of the global trend of super-presidential systems, many political scientists have been worried about the growing dangerous and disruptive feature in the presidency in America, where the presidential system was born. All political regimes work on a tense tug-of-war between the force trying to draw in as much power as possible and the force that resists it. In the presidential system, the president is at the center of the struggle.
Recent U.S. presidents have tried to bypass Congress, which has the constitutional authority in lawmaking. Instead of wrangling with lawmakers for legislation, former and sitting presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden have chosen to issue executive orders. During his reign, Trump stamped 220 executive orders, including the discriminatory entry ban on countries with a “high-risk” of terrorism. Biden may outpace his predecessor soon. In just six months in office, he has issued 51 executive orders.
A super-presidency that reigns over the legislature and the judiciary has been deepening in a blunter and dangerous manner in central Europe and Latin America. Leaders like Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland and Victor Orban of Hungary forced the early retirement of judges to fill the seats with people loyal to the regime.
In his book “Chong Wa Dae (Blue House) Government,” political scientist Park Sang-hoon studied the features of the supremacy of presidential power in Korea. Whether they be conservative or liberal, all presidents have built up organizations and budgeting for the presidential office to strengthen their power. How presidents deal with the National Assembly and political parties can best represent their towering power. Until impeachment, the former conservative president had utterly ignored not just opposition parties but also opponents within the ruling party. The Blue House-led administration went on under liberal President Moon Jae-in. A presidential aide even ordered the ruling party to hurry with reform bills to underscore the supremacy of presidential power.
A super-presidency where all decisions lie with the president is limited when it comes to addressing multilateral political, social and economic issues. The president and his staff, dominated by men in their 50s and 60s, cannot solve various issues that come up in an unrestrained and frank manner.
To stop the dangerous trend, I suggest we focus more on the character of candidates than on their platforms. Their campaign platforms are bound to betray us after the candidate becomes president. We cannot wish for a miracle in their policies to satisfy 50 million people. We can best hope that half-baked ideas do not shake or ruin our lives.
But presidential candidates’ characters can hardly betray voters. We should study which candidate has the openness to listen to others, who has the patience to tolerate the endless debating and confrontation of a democracy, and most of all, who has the modesty to admit that a president in a single five-year term cannot solve every problem on their own.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.