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68.7% support amendment to Constitution

94.2% of lawmakers polled also favor a new governing system
Sept 26,2017
Most respondents support a national referendum to amend the Constitution next June 13, according to a public opinion survey and a poll of lawmakers conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo earlier this month.

Of the 1,000 voters surveyed nationwide, 78.4 percent support holding the referendum in June, while 68.6 percent support a constitutional amendment to introduce a new governing system.

In a separate poll of 241 of the National Assembly’s 299 members, 88.8 percent also support the June date, while 94.2 percent support the amendment. The schedule for the referendum was a campaign pledge of President Moon Jae-in. When he hosted the floor leaders of the five major political parties after he took office, he reiterated the promise to amend the Constitution in June.

“Not just Moon, but National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun and Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon support the constitutional change,” said Park Myung-lim, professor of political science at Yonsei University. “If the ruling and opposition parties manage to agree, this will be the time to end the 1987 system that was used for over 30 years.”

But while the people and politicians do agree on the need and the timing of the amendment, they differ on the desirable forms of the government.

According to the public opinion poll, 41.2 percent favor a four-year presidency with the possibility of reelection, 27.8 percent prefer a single-term presidency, 12 percent prefer a parliamentary system and 7.6 percent favor a semi-presidential system. Meanwhile, over 38 percent of lawmakers polled said they want a four-year presidency with the possibility of reelection, while 34 percent prefer a semi-presidential system.

In a semi-presidential system, a president rules alongside a prime minister and a cabinet. The president is typically the head of the state, directly elected by the people, while the prime minister, nominated by the president, is the head of government. The legislature has the power for dismissal. In France, the president controls foreign policy and the prime minister oversees domestic policy.

“Because of national separation, the people have long preferred a presidential system,” said Jaung Hoon, professor of political science at Chung-Ang University.

“Following the presidential impeachment last year, the people also became confident that they can replace the president if they want,” he added. “So that seemed to be reflected on the popularity of a presidential system.”

In recent Korean political history, every president who has tried to realize constitutional amendment has failed. President Roh Moo-hyun proposed an amendment to introduce a U.S.-style presidential system in 2007, but Park Geun-hye, then the chairwoman of the main opposition party, condemned the idea as a trick to win the next election.

President Lee Myung-bak made another push in 2010, the third year of his presidency, but the project faced fierce protest from both the ruling and opposition parties. Park, who was the largest stakeholder of the ruling party, again protested the plan.

Park succeeded Lee and barred any discussion of constitutional amendment during the first years of her presidency. But she then introduced the idea in October, although her proposal never gained momentum as it was seen as an attempt to distract from her corruption and abuse of power scandal.

Compounding these political obstacles is the fact that Koreans are wary of further constitutional reform, according to Kim Seon-taek, a law professor of Korea University. This, Kim told the JoongAng Ilbo, stems from the experiences suffered as a result of the constitutional amendments of Park Chung Hee, the late father of Park Geun-hye, who used the changes to extend his dictatorship.

Experts also said Roh, Lee and Park all failed because they tried to push for the amendment not during their early days in the office, but in the later part of their presidencies, when their powers were weaker. Presidential contenders often oppose any discussion of change to the governance system.

But the situation may be different this time, because Moon, who took office in May, promised to hold a referendum for the constitutional amendment in June. Because the successors’ race has yet to heat up, some say Moon stands a better chance at success.

“For the first time in our constitutional history,” said National Assembly Speaker Chung, “the condition has matured such that the people, the legislature and the administration together can create a constitution.”

BY CHOI MIN-WOO, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]