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[Dong-a plaza] Presidents` failures

Posted April. 10, 2001 18:02,   


When 26 years of military dictatorial rule starting from president Park Chung-Hee in 1961 was brought to an end with the ``June civil uprising`` in 1987, there was a national consensus that there should be no more ``prolonged one-man rule`` of the country. In line with this, a single five-year presidential term was adopted through a constitutional amendment, based on a virtual agreement among ex-president Roh Tae-Woo and the so-called three Kims, namely, Kim Young-Sam, Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Jong-Pil. At that time, the three Kims may have thought they had better chances to become president with the single-term presidential system. Following President Roh, Kim Young-Sam and Kim Dae-Jung became president in succession, as they might have wished, taking advantage of the limited presidential tenure. Nonetheless, former presidents Roh and Kim were now dubbed as ``failed presidents,`` yet whether incumbent President Kim will become a successful president remains to be seen.

The failure of the ``imperial-like presidents`` is not their own failures alone, but that of the state and the people as well. Why did the five-year-term presidents fail? In the first place, the voters failed to elect qualified presidents. A more serious issue is that their elections were grounded on blind and exclusive regionalism. Roh was elected president by cashing in on the split among supporters of the other two contestants, Kim Young-Sam and Kim Dae-Jung. In the 1987 presidential vote, the fatal split between backers of the two Kims was rooted in the east-west regional rivalry and during the course of their presidencies, regionalism was furthered deepened. Such regional rivalry or antipathy has almost reached the point of no return.

Kim (YS)`s failure virtually provided a chance for minority leader Kim (DJ) to become president and the latter was expected to significantly alleviate the regional sentiment. But he also has failed. There is no need to discuss here why he has failed. The compelling issue is that because of his failure to attain a national consensus, the presidential election next year will still be plagued by regionalism. Although the entire responsibility for this cannot be placed on President Kim`s shoulders alone, the basic cause for the failure can be traced to DJ`s strategy for achieving a political alliance with Kim Jong-Pil`s United Liberal Democrats and the Democratic People`s Party.

The next question is whether the single five-year term presidency is responsible for producing a failed president. Rep. Kim Keun-Tae, supreme council member of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), raised such a possibility, asserting that after three years in office, the president tends to become impatient to accomplish something remarkable before the arrival of ``lame-duck syndrome`` and then opts for a high-handed strategy when the things are not going as well as he envisioned. Rep. Rhee In-Je, another MDP supreme councilor, pointed to unstable power stemming from the different terms for president and National Assembly members, who serve for four years. For instance, Rhee explained, because the parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held 14 months after next year`s presidential vote, the newly elected president, whoever he may be, is certain to make a desperate attempt to build a stable parliamentary force through or even after the ensuing general elections with all means available, including the recruitment of rival party lawmakers. Rep. Kim Deog-Ryong of the opposition Grand National Party advocates that a constitutional revision is necessary to form a new power structure through which the deep-rooted regionalism can be overcome.

Opponents of the constitutional change have a different view. They assert that if the president were given two four-year presidential terms, during his fist term he would always be thinking about securing a second. Others contend that simultaneous elections of the president and lawmakers would not ensure that the ruling party could secure a majority floor force. A proposed system calling for the election of a president and a vice president is also feared to aggravate regional antagonism.

Against this backdrop, the calls for a constitutional amendment can be justified only after they do their best to convince the people of the justification for their arguments. They would also have to build a popular consensus on the constitutional revision, persuading people that the proposed two four-year presidential term would be conducive to preventing a ``failed president`` and that the installation of a president and vice president would be helpful for lessening regionalism. It can never be tolerated if the current constitutional amendment maneuvers are intended to shake the political landscape in an ulterior scheme to seize political power. In this light, the remarks on the constitutional change uttered by ruling party leaders smack of partisan machinations. If the ruling camp has such an inclination, the party ought to formulate a concrete plan and put it forward to the general public as an election pledge in the next presidential election.

Most important is not the type of power structure but the quality of political leaders who steer the system. From leaders who tend to monopolize government authority without sharing power with others, the people cannot expect advanced politics regardless of any constitutional changes. At this juncture, it is essential to find a leader who is most fit for the contemporary age. A new leadership cannot be provided by others. The voters must find and cultivate it with their eyes open. Now is the time for the people to undertake this task.

Chun Jin-Woo youngji@donga.com