Campaign for the past, not the future
Missing in the ongoing campaign is an open discussion on how to change Korea for the future. Candidates are campaigning with tactics and pledges of the past ― ideological squabble, red-baiting, backbiting, malicious propaganda, and reputation smearing. Namely, they are campaigning for the analogue past in the digital age.
No candidate talks about how to change the current, outdated and malfunctioning government structure.
Many lawmakers agree that the current five-year, single-term presidency has fatal flaws. Political scientists predict whoever wins the presidential race on Dec.18, might face an unhappy ending under the current imperial presidential system.
Nearly all popularly-elected Korean presidents failed without exception since Korea reintroduced the popular vote in 1987, not necessarily because of personality, but because of the current pervasive imperial presidential culture.
It is a consensus that Koreans will continue to live in the prison of the past unless it changes the current political impasse through the revision of the Constitution. However, there is almost zero possibility of rewriting the Constitution this year.
Constitutional debate will take center stage probably four years later. Three alternatives are under serious review ― the U.S.-style, four-year presidential system with a possibility of an incumbent running again, the hybrid of the presidential and Cabinet forms of government structure and the pure Cabinet system.
Depending on personal preferences, people might favor any of the three.
The American presidential system will be successful in Korea only when lawmakers are free from the control of their parties. Even competent lawmakers become yes-men or rubber stamps as they toe the party line once elected. However, U.S. Congressmen lack in party loyalty as they win without needing party nomination.
The United States has a working presidential system as the country has a strong media and the independent court. Korea cannot say it has a better independent media and judiciary system than the United States.
In addition, Korea doesn’t have the U.S.-style federal system. American federal lawmakers have little room for meddling as each state runs independently and autonomously. The U.S. Congress sets overall policy.
In other words, the American presidential system will be elusive in Korea until the nation has independent lawmakers, a strong local autonomy system, an impartial judiciary and a watchful and financially viable media.
Many countries failed to implant the U.S. system as they do not have independent media or court. In addition, their lawmakers are rubber-stamping lines of their parties and do not have a viable federal system.
The second option is the hybrid government form. Namely, the president will be in charge of defense and diplomacy while the prime minister will oversee other domestic affairs.
This hybrid form also has serious flaws. Once the president and the prime minister are on a honeymoon and collusive, a healthy check and balance mechanism will not function, breeding corruption and incompetency. When the president and the prime minister are at odds, the country will be in limbo.
The third alternative would be the Cabinet form of the government in which the prime minister, namely the leader of the first majority party, will become the head of state.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ― the longest serving British prime minister of the 20th century (1979-1990) ― epitomizes the merits of the Cabinet system. However, Koreans have a negative perception of the system. In a 1961 coup, Army General Park Chung-hee ousted Prime Minister Chang Myon, ending the nation’s brief experimentation with the Cabinet form of government. Japan's experience with the Cabinet system is not always positive.
However, the Cabinet system might be the most feasible form of government in Korea now. This would prevent the winner-takes-all practice. In Korea, regional, old school-boy networks play a dominant role in personnel promotion both at public and private companies. The Lee Myung-bak administration has recruited his cronies from his hometown and old boys from his alma maters. President Lee was definite about keeping competent persons from his rival hometown, from holding key public posts. Lee’s idiosyncratic personnel management policy has awakened the need for institutionalizing power sharing among different regions. This is possible only through the Cabinet system.
Korea badly needs an alternative form of government to the current troublesome single-term presidential system. This is possible only through the revision of the Constitution. Any debate about Korea’s future should start from the rewriting of the Constitution.
Without constitutional change, the nation will continue to be run under the imperial presidential system. The imperial president would continue to become a laughing stock of the public in the twilight period of presidency.
Koreans will continue to live in the prison of the past. This is the point all contenders for the parliamentary contest next Wednesday forget. It is the unavoidable national agenda that Korea must confront. Constitutional revision is an issue that will break Korea free from the old cocoon for a bright future.
Lee Chang-sup is the executive director of The Korea Times. Contact him at email@example.com.