S. Korea's ruling party wrangles over constitutional revision

13:58, February 15, 2011      

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The on-again, off-again discussion is on again. With the next presidential election two years away, a major faction within South Korea's ruling Grand National Party is busy ginning up some support for revising the country's Constitution.

At the helm of the emerging debate is a clique consisting of lawmakers backing President Lee Myung-bak, especially Lee Jae-oh, a close confident to the president currently serving as minister without portfolio.

Lee, a four-term lawmaker, has vociferously called for ushering in a new era by amending the Constitution, last revised in 1987, which he says fails to reflect changes in political, economic and social reality made over the past decades.

"Whatever party holds power in the next election, it will be hard for the country to further advance under the current Constitution," the lawmaker said in a recent meeting with other members of the pro-president faction.

A legacy of a long authoritarian rule that preceded the latest revision three decades ago, the South Korean Constitution limits a president to a single five-year term in order to prevent potential abuse of power.

The revisionists want to change the presidential term of office to a U.S.-style four-year, two-term presidency, which they say would prevent a presidency from slipping into a lame-duck session where a president, with weakened political muscle, gets hardly anything done.

President Lee Myung-bak, who has occasionally touched upon the subject, renewed his support for constitutional changes in a recently televised interview, calling for a change in the current presidential system. "The timing is right. It'd be late if we do it next year," he said during the interview.

The president has claimed the task should be left in the hands of the parliament, an apparent response to the opposition criticism that political calculations lie behind the president's push for completing the revision before his five-year stint expires.

Spurred into action, the Grand Nationals held a two-day caucus last week and decided to establish an internal task force aimed at mapping out plans for revising the Constitution, a step forward to addressing the issue that never gathered enough steam.

Still, the goal of constitutional changes is far off for the pro-president clique, faced with what looks like feigned indifference from a rival faction and overtly hostile reaction from the opposition camp.

A rival faction within the ruling party supporting Park Geun- hye, a political archrival of the president and by far the strongest presidential contender for 2012, has largely snubbed Lee loyalists' moves to press for constitutional amendment.

Of the 171 in the ruling party, more than 60 are believed to be Park loyalists.

Observers here say pro-Park lawmakers do not want the issue of constitutional revision to dominate the political scene and in doing so overshadow Park's political rise, as they want the greatest publicity focused on Park in the lead up to the presidential election in 2012.

Though the president will still not be authorized to seek reelection even under the Constitution revised within his term, directing national attention to the very issue can give Lee a greater say throughout a usually inglorious lame-duck period, observers say.

The opposition camp exhibits a rare unity in standing against modifying the Constitution, calling the moves by Lee supporters a political stunt.

"When South Koreans are faced with a hard time, the so-called minister without portfolio is blabbering about revising the Constitution," chairman of the main opposition Democratic Party, Son Hak-kyu, said in a radio speech Thursday, accusing the revisionist of being "out of their mind."

The Democrats, whose attempts at revising the Constitution in the previous liberal administration were foiled by the conservative Grand Nationals, say it is time for the parliament to focus on more urgent issues at hand -- economy and restoring democratic values.

If a recent poll is any indication, the general public does not extend a helping hand to the Lee clique either.

A recent poll by Chosun Ilbo, a leading conservative daily newspaper, showed 53.7 percent of the respondents supported changing the presidential term while 46.3 percent of them were against the idea -- a sharp split.

Meanwhile, 48.6 percent of the supporters opted for a four-year, two-term presidency, and 47 percent of them agreed that the amendment should be made before Lee exits power.

Source: Xinhua

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