Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Constitutional Reform is a Good Idea that Likely Won’t Happen

In a surprising political move that reeks of desperation, President Park Geun-hye dropped a political bombshell yesterday when she called for scrapping the single five-year term limit that has been placed on the presidency since 1987.

Seeing how President Park is currently embroiled in a scandal involving Choi Soon-sil, one of her close confidants, over accusations of corruption and power-peddling, which in turn has also widened the investigation to include Ahn Chong-bum, President Park’s chief policy aide, it was widely expected that either the Blue House or members of the pro-Park faction of the ruling Saenuri Party would do something to distract people from the latest round of scandals.

When former Foreign Minister Song Min-soon mentioned in his memoir, A Glacier Inevitably Moves, that Moon Jae-in -- who was the late President Roh Moo-hyun’s chief-of staff -- had given the green light in 2007 to ask Pyongyang for its opinion on the U.N. resolution on North Korean human rights violations, this was widely thought to be the political issue that President Park and Saenuri lawmakers would use to beat the opposition to death.


It was the perfect bludgeon. Whether one cares to admit it or not, it is extremely difficult to interpret Moon’s actions as anything else other than collaborating with the enemy -- Sunshine or no Sunshine. Furthermore, Moon has still not yet denied the allegation, which has only added fuel to the fire. If they had beat this drum loudly and for long enough, for good or for ill, it would have likely drowned out what is being dubbed by the Korean media as Choisoonsil-gate.

So it was a shock when President Park gave her formal endorsement for revising the Constitution. After all, when a proposal was made early last year to amend the Constitution -- and one of the proposals was to change the president's single five-year term to a four-year term with the possibility of reelection -- President Park opposed it under no uncertain terms. She said that attempting to amend the Constitution would have been akin to “a black hole” for other pending issues.

Speaking of black holes...
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And she was right. Revising the Constitution requires significant political capital and everything else -- deregulation, tax cuts, decentralization, welfare programs, foreign policy, international trade agreements, alliance management -- would have been placed on the backseat. Revising the Constitution would have been extremely difficult when her approval ratings were still high during the early days of her administration. Now that her approval ratings are at an all-time low, if she does go through with this, it’s possible that she will be wrestling with this until her last day in office and still fail to get anything done.

This was a 180-degree turn and it reeks of desperation. Even if there were enough political capital to push this through, the political payout would be insignificant. At least for President Park.

Considering South Korea’s history of authoritarian leaders who amended the Constitution to allow them to rule indefinitely, President Park’s own father being one of them -- South Korea’s Constitution has been amended a total of ten times within its relatively short history -- it made perfect sense when it was agreed that the power of the president would be greatly curtailed, though imperfectly. Although the single five-year term was certainly an improvement over the past, the fact that the president still gets to appoint and dismiss members of the Cabinet means that too much political power is still concentrated in the hands of the president.

There are four specific amendments in the Republic of Korea Constitution that are aimed specifically at curtailing the power of the president. 

Article 70:
The term of office of the President shall be five years, and the President shall not be reelected.

Article 128, Section 2:
Amendments to the Constitution for the extension of the term of office of the President or for a change allowing for the reelection of the President shall not be effective for the President in office at the time of the proposal for such amendments to the Constitution.

Article 130, Section 1:
The National Assembly shall decide upon the proposed amendments within sixty days of the public announcement, and passage by the National Assembly shall require the concurrent vote of two thirds or more of the total members of the National Assembly.

Article 130, Section 2:
The proposed amendments to the Constitution shall be submitted to a national referendum not later than thirty days after passage by the National Assembly, and shall be determined by more than one half of all votes cast by more than one half of voters eligible to vote in elections for members of the National Assembly.

After having been ruled by authoritarian leaders for far too long, ironclad safeguards had been built into the Constitution to ensure that no other president could amass dictatorial powers. Not even Park Geun-hye. Short of commanding the military, which was largely defanged by the late President Kim Young-sam (so there goes that option!), to use violence against the National Assembly and against the South Korean people (and the U.S. would just love that!), there simply is no easy way to amend the Constitution -- especially not when the proposed amendment is so contentious.

A simple cost-benefit analysis of amending the Constitution clearly shows that the costs outweigh the benefits. At least if the benefits are strictly limited to what President Park might be able to enjoy in the short term, rather than the nation as a whole over the long term. And there are many serious reasons to doubt any politician’s commitment to altruism.

For reference, please, read F.A. Hayek’s Why the Worst Get on Top
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So it is likely that all this noise being made about amending the Constitution is simply hot air whose sole purpose is to distract people from the scandals that are surrounding President Park. As soon as the scandal is largely forgotten, it’s more than plausible that all this talk about constitutional revision will be shelved just as quickly.

We have to be clear that there are certainly benefits to allowing the president to seek re-election (though anything more than two terms would be met with significant political opposition). In reality, a single five-year term means that the president actually serves a single four-year term because, unsurprisingly, incumbents become lame ducks in their final year. After all, while the president gets to contemplate retirement (and hope not to be jailed by his/her successor), everyone else is understandably focused on who will be the next president.

The president’s time in office is shortened even further when one considers institutional inertia that always greets a new president. For lifelong politicians like Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam, it was relatively easy for them to fill in government positions with people they knew were loyal to them. But for newly elected presidents who have not spent their lives in politics (or in Park Geun-hye’s case, came from politics but mostly as a “legacy”), a president without political connections is at a disadvantage. Case in point, though it seems like a lifetime ago now, there was a time early in President Park’s administration when she had trouble filling ministerial positions because of political opposition.

Needless to say, the biggest challenge that the single five-year term poses is the lack of continuity and policy effectiveness. Policies ranging from economic matters such as reining in the chaebol to North Korea policy have changed from administration to administration. More time is needed for government policies to bear fruit. If the policies prove to be valuable and effective, successive presidents will be more likely to continue and honor those policies, regardless of which parties the presidents hail from. It would ensure that partisanship would get tempered once an individual is elected president.

Whether the policies are rational or not and whether the results of the policies would be sweet or bitter are a different, albeit related, subject. But without continuity, a nation’s slogans about long-term goals would be just that -- slogans and nothing more. And Korea is full of buried slogans.

Seeing what has happened to Uber and what will happen to Airbnb, I am still not clear as to what “creative economy” means
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Perhaps the most compelling reason to allow presidents to seek reelection is the most cliché of them all. Korea is a divided country and whether it is the result of deliberate action or gross miscalculation or sheer bad luck, the specter of war cannot be taken for granted. In times of national crisis, continuity and experience can be vital. There is a reason Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to a fourth term during the Second World War.

There are many good reasons to support a constitutional revision. It’s a shame that President Park appears to be using the possibility of constitutional revision for something as frivolous as a shield against political scandal. This is a discussion that ought to be given serious and sober thought, but President Park’s seemingly careless disregard for it could rob the country of desperately needed reform.

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