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[Newsmaker] Chung, ‘man of principle,’ goes against the odds

By strongly resisting Cheong Wa Dae’s efforts to press the National Assembly to pass contentious bills, Speaker Chung Ui-hwa has remained true to his “guardian of legislation” nickname.

On Wednesday, the veteran doctor-turned-politician flatly turned down the presidential office’s request to put disputed bills to a parliamentary vote, saying, “The current economic situation cannot be seen as a national emergency.” He said if he did so, he would be overstepping the law.

Chung, who has never shied away from publicly criticizing President Park Geun-hye’s lack of communication, is once again in the limelight at a time when the public is weary of the constant bickering between rival parties at the cost of constructive policy debates.

But his tough stance may boomerang on him, as he could be denied a Saenuri Party nomination for the general elections in April next year ― with many ruling party members openly reproaching him. 

National Assembly Speaker Chung Ui-hwa (Yonhap)
National Assembly Speaker Chung Ui-hwa (Yonhap)

This was not the first time the fifth-term lawmaker has gone against his own party’s majority opinion.

Since he took office as parliamentary speaker in May last year, Chung has been maintaining neutrality on key issues and mediating between the rival parties during deadlocks.

In June, when Park vetoed a revision to the National Assembly Act that reinforced the parliament’s right to demand changes to government ordinances, Chung hit back and criticized her decision point by point. He said that the legislative branch is entitled to discuss administrative regulations that are feared to deviate from the purpose of laws.

In the latest flare-up, Cheong Wa Dae pressed him repeatedly through private visits and public statements to push ahead with a vote on the pending economic bills, labor reforms and counterterrorism that have been laid aside by the opposition. Chung remained steadfast that bipartisan agreement still come above all else.

As the opposition parties ― without a clear sense of direction on their own ― hailed Chung’s unlikely support, young and senior Saenuri members alike expressed dissatisfaction. Some even suggested they move to oust him.

As debate ensued, some reports likened him to former Saenuri Party floor leader Rep. Yoo Seong-min, who stepped down from the position after Park labeled him a “betrayer” for failing to support her key bills.

But observers have pointed out that “dealing with” Chung would not be as easy. As the head of the constitutional body, the Assembly speaker stands second after the president in the country’s official protocol ranking.

However, at the same time he may compromise and try to mend fences with his home party so as to win the nomination for his long-time constituency in Busan.

“Jungdong-gu is my constituency and it is only fair that I should run (in the upcoming April general elections),” he said in September.

Chung has been representing Busan’s Jung-gu and Dong-gu since he won his first parliamentary seat in 1996.

Another risk is that he be considered a pro-Lee Myung-bak member, largely at odds with the more influential pro-Park Geun-hye clique.

By Bae Hyun-jung  (