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Post-impeachment Consensus Calls for a New Political System in South Korea

The main conference room inside South Korea’s National Assembly Building. (Wikimedia Commons)

The four-party system resurrected under the post-impeachment climate complicates the parties’ political calculus of carrying the ‘torch’ of participatory democracy. The political maelstrom is expected to turn more volatile with a possibility of an expedited presidential election cycle. Yet, the journey to permanently end ‘imperial presidency’ continues.

Out of the blame game over President Park Geun-Hye’s bizarre plummet to political perdition, the party in power, Saenuri, gave reluctant birth to the Barun party, pioneered by the anti-Park clique. The newly formed centrist-right party’s quest to establish their party label as the reformist representation of the conservative camp adds a third-way zest to the South Korean party system.

The People’s party entered the National Assembly during the 2016 parliamentary election by riding the increasing tide of conservative ‘dislodgers’ who were at the time dissatisfied with Park’s queenish management of party politics. Since then, the third major party has so far successfully walked a tight-rope, with considerable bargaining power independent of its mother party, the most long-established in the liberal camp, the Minjoo party. Barun’s abrupt parting with the dead-duck leader Park Guen Hye is expected to further boost 2016’s People’s party-led swing voter movement. This time, however, it is fueled by the explosive and anger-based Candlelight Revolution.

After seven weekly vigil-like mass protests, in one of which as many as two million people participated in one day, the National Assembly obeyed the ‘rhyme’ of the people’ participatory democracy. President Park was impeached for her part in a corruption case on December 6, 2016 by a 234–56 margin. The exposure of Park’s synchronization of national governance with her own household management infuriated especially young people with little money, but also their parents, drawing them onto the streets to exercise their civil and constitutional right to protest.

On the one hand, the success of the so-called Candlelight Revolution displayed the strength of participatory democracy in South Korea. Peaceful street demonstrations employing nonviolent, orderly and even artistic ways of communication intrinsically demanded democracy (pluralistic equality) at face value and civil and constitutional justice in eradicating corruption.

On the other hand, it created an impending lapse in high-level policy management and destabilized politics by setting the clock forward for this year’s presidential election cycle. The constitutional court now has up to six months (from December 6, 2016) to come up with the final decision (allegedly, the court will reach its decision by March 13, 2017). Once the ruling is reached, the presidential election must be held with the following two months.

The glory of participatory democracy shines only when pluralistic equality is maintained. Still, the parties are vigilant not to miss the post-impeachment opportunities to herd angry swing voters. The liberal camp, especially the Minjoo party, is eager to carry the torch of the Candlelight Revolution to win the presidential election based on a strategic claim of ‘regime change’. In coping with the legitimacy crisis, the disintegrated conservative camp in contrast seeks ‘constitutional-reforms’ to ‘imperial presidency’, seen as a post-1987 political malfunction, as a catalyst to form a grand coalition, a ‘big tent’, across centrist parties and what is now the façade of the ancien regime, Saenuri.

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s recent return has lifted the curtain on this dramatic framing war between the liberals and conservatives. Although having never officially expressed his interest in running for the presidency, during his return speech at Incheon airport on January 12, 2017, Ban called for ‘political change’ based on an ‘inclusive integration’ of Korean society.

Ban, a 50-year veteran diplomat yet a novice in South Korea’s domestic politics, lacks a firm support base that can mobilize resources and collective action on his behalf. Still, his experience as a networked global leader, preparedness in security issues, and relative socio-economic progressiveness compared to other presidential candidates are centrist strengths. These strengths have so far made him one of the top two presidential candidates.

In differentiating his candidacy from that of Ban, the Minjoo party’s Moon Jae-In, the leading presidential candidate in the liberal camp and the former chief of staff to the Ro Moo-hyun administration, emphasizes that, unlike Ban, his competency as a candidate has already been verified. Indeed, Ban’s candidacy will come under great scrutiny both from the public and the parties. Despite this hurdle, once Ban officially declares that he will roll the dice, it is highly probable that he will be the pivot for the conservatives’ grand coalition (Ban dropped out of the race on February 1, 2017, and it seems like there is no one to challenge Moon’s monopoly at this point in time).

Constitutional reforms to ‘imperial presidency’ as steps towards institutionalized participatory democracy

In the aftermath of the Candlelight Revolution, the Korean people’s demands for constitutionally restructuring the post-1987 five-year-term presidency framework have heightened. Although parties’ and presidential candidates’ stance on this political hot potato differ with respect to how and when, no one disagrees over the urgency of implementing relevant remedies.

South Korea’s ‘winners-take-all’ majoritarian party system, leveraged by an ‘imperial’ president’s power, has been long criticized by many minority party leaders and even by faction leaders within the party in power. Pundits have blamed the predominant political culture in the country, under which the hegemony of the predominant regionalist party has a firm grip on the control of both the executive and the legislature. This prevents opposition parties from functioning effectively, and causes extreme legislative gridlock and filibuster.

Reforming such defects of the majoritarian party system was one of the core campaign agendas of the left-centrist DJP coalition in 1998, which helped liberal presidential candidate Kim Dae-Jung to win the election. Nevertheless, the Kim Dae-Jung administration’s DJP coalition was short-lived, leaving the impression that the coalition peddled the promise just to win the election.

Recently, optimism has been growing among Korean political scientists that South Korea’s party politics is ready to embrace Lijphart’s consociational democracy model. Indeed, analyzing through the lens of Sartori’s theoretical framework, South Korea’s relatively narrow spectrum of political cleavages, thus, more centripetal tendencies could render politics a multi-party-system-based ‘moderate pluralism’.

In theory, the new system might allow the grand coalition government and opposition parties to play the two-party system accountability game (since voters would easily figure out which of the two blocs is responsible for failures/successes), with more political voices represented (since cross-party deliberation is inevitable in forming a pre-election coalition, unlike in the two-party system where the two ‘catch-all’ parties simply do marketing to peddle their programmatic agendas to median voters). Such an experimental institutional design, however, needs to resolve the innate agency dilemma between elites and the people, and also come up with proper institutional devices to decentralize the current presidential power.

With regard to the latter challenge, the National Assembly’s Special Committee on Constitutional Reform is already examining whether the German-style semi-presidential system, the U.S.-style four-year-term presidency, or the U.K.-style cabinet system is best suited to reflect the country’s political reality. Nevertheless, ways to institutionalize the political solutions that narrow down the deliberation gap between elites and the people, as well as across the people, must also be taken into consideration.

The significance of the Candlelight Revolution’s success lies in the fact that the ‘rhythm (Hannah Arendt’s term)’ of participatory democracy, although unofficially, made the National Assembly accountable to the people. It is therefore important now to transform this unnatural rhythm into recurring, refined, and self-disciplined participatory institutional mechanisms in order to both ethically and functionally enhance elites’ accountability to the people. Direct-democracy tools like public referenda and popular initiatives such as are already widely practiced in advanced democracies are no doubt great examples of such mechanisms. Still more innovative political thoughts and experiments are pressing to preclude the agency dilemma, especially concerning the case in which the face value of democracy is lost in translation between undisciplined participatory democracy and polarized party politics.