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Outplayed by government, parties lose direction

Though three weeks remain before it ends on Oct. 8, it appears safe to say that this year’s parliamentary audit is a flop. 

Officials of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance wait to help Minister Choi Kyung-hwan (front row, second from left) at the parliamentary audit session on Sept. 14. (Yonhap)
Officials of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance wait to help Minister Choi Kyung-hwan (front row, second from left) at the parliamentary audit session on Sept. 14. (Yonhap)


None of the major or minor parties have so far managed to set the agenda in their checking of the administration, instead being sidetracked by internal struggles ahead of next year’s general election.

A slight chance of a redemption fizzled out as their superficial questions against high-profile witnesses such as Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin simply highlighted the need to overhaul the outdated audit system and practices.

Meanwhile, Cheong Wa Dae has been reveling in its newfound momentum, as President Park Geun-hye, with approval ratings back above 50 percent, pushes ahead with her reform initiatives.

Buoyed by what the government trumpeted as the “successful management” of the North Korean situation upon the Aug. 25 agreement and her attendance at China’s Sept. 3 military parade, it indeed seemed no other political power was close to keeping the administration in check.

While the ruling Saenuri Party churns out nothing but praise for Park’s policies, the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy remains too preoccupied with in-house battles to seriously criticize her initiatives.

Observers said the dynamics between Park and the Assembly had shifted in favor of the administration, as it had more ability than the legislative branch to take initiative in state affairs.

“There should be a healthy tension between the administration and the National Assembly,” said Lee Jung-hee, political professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “Political parties sometimes need to unite and speak out against the government, but recently, there has been no such move.”

The legislative absence was reflected in Park’s relentless push to reform the labor market, an issue that rival parties struggled to take the initiative on. The Saenuri Party, which has been cautious, even reluctant to protest against the president, especially since the July carnage that eventually resulted in “defiant” party whip Rep. Yoo Seung-min resigning, after Park threatened to veto an agreement he had landed with the NPAD. The Saenuri Party wasted no time in endorsing her labor reforms.

The NPAD, for its part, struggled to address the president’s drive as the party is still mired in factional infighting over the party’s governance, structure and the fate of its leader Rep. Moon Jae-in.

Professor Lee said the dysfunction in the legislative branch stemmed from lawmakers’ lack of policymaking expertise. Lawmakers’ ability to analyze policy and draft relevant bills is behind that of the ministries and other government branches.

“If you compare the bill drafted by the executive branch to one drafted by the legislators, you will notice that the latter is inferior in terms of the depth of research and relevance to the issue,” he said.

According to research by the Citizens Coalition for Economic Justice, a Seoul-based civic group, most bills, particularly those from prolific lawmakers, were found to be almost identical, churned out under different names, or contained similar provisions to those of the existing laws.

The lawmakers’ lack of expertise is best shown during the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into government agencies. During the sessions, some of those who were eager to showcase their policy expertise were subjected to public ridicule for asking off-topic questions. Rep. You Dae-woon of the NPAD, for instance, came under attack for demanding the nation’s police chief to “demonstrate” how to shoot a gun before lawmakers in his questioning about gun accidents.

Critics attributed their below-standard performance to the lopsided characteristics of Korea’s political parties, which have an overabundance of high-profile political heavyweights and an insufficient system to support rank-and-file lawmakers’ legislation.

“Compared to the United States, where each congressman has about 20 to 50 aides, Korean lawmakers are only allowed to have a maximum of six aides. The number of policy researchers in the Assembly is only one-tenth of that of the U.S,” said Yoon Seung-yi of Kyung Hee University.

The systematic fallout stems from the fact that even the established lawmakers have a hard time holding on to their seats in the Assembly and consequently the parliamentary committees. With more than half of the incumbent lawmakers losing their seats during each election, those currently in office frequently change from one committee to another depending on vacancies. Preferences also play a major part in fickle rotation of committee compositions as popular ones are often allotted to high-profile members as rewards.

Such a frequent turnover among lawmakers prevents them from accumulating knowledge to address issues that are only getting more diverse and complex these days, political watchers say. Some critics half-jokingly label the Assembly as an organization for “amateurs” or “interns.”

The dysfunctional parliament, the pundits said, will persist unless changes are made to the unique culture of Korea’s political system that centers on the prominence of party heavyweights, not rank-and-file lawmakers’ political expertise in legislative affairs.

“Since Korea’s political parties’ depend upon the prominence of party heavyweights, the best strategy for lawmakers who want to raise their profile is to impress the top-brass in parties, not to develop political expertise,” said Yoon.

The origin of major political parties traces back to the history of Korea’s politics. While the era of Three Kims ― former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam and retired heavyweight Kim Jong-pil ―- has ended after they dominated Korean politics for more than a decade since the 1980s, the tendency lives on as parties often depend on and revere a political leader.

In 2008, there was even a party named “pro-Park (Geun-hye) association” in the midst of the nomination battle within the Grand National Party, a precursor to the Saenuri Party.

This long-running phenomenon has led to undermining public trust toward the parliament, as the voters view the parties as a proxy organization campaigning under an eventual presidential candidate, rather than an entity formed by like-minded legislators.

According to a report from Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, only 17.4 percent of surveyed voters said they trusted the National Assembly, which was about 20 percent lower than their sentiments toward the executive branch. Of all public organizations, it ranked the lowest in public trust.

Experts predicted that Park would maintain her dominance over the National Assembly until next April’s general election because the ruling Saenuri Party leadership will refuse to oppose her as she is just more than halfway through her five-year presidency.

“I am pretty sure that President Park will hold on to her dominance … because those who seek future power dare not resist those who are currently in power,” said Shin Yul, political professor at Myongji University.

By Yeo Jun-suk (jasonyeo@heraldcorp.com)
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