Return to Two-Term Presidency?

2008-07-16 : 17:30
By Kim Jong-chan
Political Editor

Sixty years ago today, Korea's Constitution was first created. Since then, it has been revised nine times. The latest change was made about two decades ago to revive direct presidential voting and introduce a five-year presidency that bans the president from seeking a second term.

Law experts as well as politicians consider the current Constitution out of date as it has remained intact for the past 21 years. A revision is needed to meet the changing reality. It does not fit contemporary Korea, which has transformed from a country governed by authoritarian leaders between the 1960s and the early 1990s to a democracy. A most likely scenario is that the nation will begin a debate on constitutional revision in mid-2009 and that a referendum coincides with the local elections in 2010.

It seems that a time machine carrying the presidential term is going back to decades ago. Debate on the revival of a four-year presidential system, under which the president would be allowed to seek a second term, is not new. It has been a major source of discussion in Korea for years. The current five-year single-term presidency tends to make the president an early lame duck as well as self-righteous and stubborn.

The inception of the single-term presidency in 1981 may have been a matter of course in that former President Park Chung-hee, who took power in a 1961 coup, prolonged his authoritarian ruling until he was assassinated in October 1979, in defiance of rising protests from the opposition, students and people. Park extended his ruling through a constitutional amendment, called ``samseon gaeheon,'' in 1969 that gave him a third term. It was early Sunday morning when the then ruling camp mobilized hundreds of policemen in and around an annex of the Assembly building to railroad the revision, while opposition party lawmakers were staging a sit-in at the Assembly's main chamber to block its passage. Three years later, the basic law was overhauled again for the introduction of the notorious Yushin (Revitalization) system, which paved the way for Park to seek a fourth term or more.

The presidential term has varied almost whenever a change of government took place ― a four-year term with the chance for a second term during the Syngman Rhee government; a six-year term under the Yushin system during the Park Chung-hee government; a seven-year single term during the Chun Doo-hwan government (Chun, who took power in a 1980 coup, was made president by an electoral college, not by direct voting); and a five-year single term that has been adopted since 1987.

Another major bone of contention is whether the president should share power with the prime minister or not. A combination of presidential and parliamentary systems of government, the scheme is designed to strip the president of part of his power and give it to the prime minister ― the president takes care of diplomacy, while the prime minister is in charge of domestic affairs.

According to the latest survey of 224 lawmakers conducted by the Munhwa Ilbo newspaper, 83 percent of respondents said yes to the need to change the Constitution during the first half of the current legislature. About 45.4 percent called for the revival of a four-year presidency with the possibility of reelection, while 19 percent and 15.1 percent asked for the introduction of a parliamentary system of government and a scheme for power-sharing between the president and the prime minister.

Now, the constitutional revision has a high chance of getting approved as a large number of legislators, regardless of party affiliation, support it. A possible alliance between the governing Grand National Party (GNP) and the conservative Liberty Forward Party (LFP) on the matter will be able to unilaterally pass a revision. The largest opposition Democratic Party's 81 seats in the 299-member unicameral legislature is too small a number to thwart the passage of an amendment. A constitutional change requires the approval by two-thirds or 200 of the Assemblymen, and then a majority in a referendum.

A change in the power structure needs the consensus of the people. Time-consuming disputes could divide the nation as was seen in many previous similar cases and erode the endeavors to revive the economy. In his inaugural speech last Thursday, Assembly Speaker Kim Hyong-o appealed to his fellow lawmakers to bid farewell to ``black-and-white (all-or-nothing) politics,'' and conduct ``colored politics (politics of compromise).''