An extended partisan confrontation at the National Assembly raises concerns that the legislature may not be able to meet the goal of putting a proposal for constitutional amendment to a referendum in tandem with the next local elections in June.
On the surface, the central issue in the standoff between the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and the main opposition Liberty Korea Party is the extension of the operation of an ad-hoc parliamentary committee on a constitutional revision, which is set to end its term at the end of this year.
The ruling party wants to extend the operation of the committee by two months, while the Liberty Korea Party insists on six months. The standoff has stalled other major parliamentary business, including the confirmation of the nominee for top auditor.
The problem is that the gap between the two parties -- which are already split over which power structure the new Constitution should adopt -- is far wider than what the four-month difference in their positions on the extended term of the committee suggests.
That is because the Liberty Korea Party’s positon is based on its opposition to the plan to complete the work to revise the Constitution by the local elections scheduled for June 13.
Its demand to extend the work of the special parliamentary committee for six months -- that is, until the end of June -- is nothing but a tactic to thwart preparing a proposal in time for the local elections.
During his presidential campaign, the Liberty Korea Party’s leader Hong Joon-pyo promised to push for a referendum on a constitutional amendment to be held on the same day people vote for local mayors governors and councilors. But the party justifies the reversal of its position by stressing the need to have a sufficient discussion and deliberation, and to form national consensus.
It also argues that the ruling party is rushing to revise the basic law in support of President Moon Jae-in’s proposal to change the power structure into one in which the president is allowed to serve two consecutive four-year terms.
The Liberty Korea Party prefers a semi-presidential system in which the president elected by a popular vote shares power with the prime minister chosen by the parliament.
But the Liberty Korea Party’s position -- as some of its own members admit -- has more to do with its election strategy. It believes that holding a national referendum on election day will draw more people -- especially young voters -- to the polling booths, which usually works against the conservative party.
It also argues that a constitutional amendment could overshadow the opposition party’s campaign strategy to highlight what it claims are policy failures and mismanagement of the Moon government and the ruling party.
Nevertheless, the Liberty Korea Party is deluded in its move to delay the already overdue amendment of the supreme law, which was last revised in 1987 in the wake of a democracy movement. Numerous polls support an early revision of the Constitution, which has not caught up with the enormous changes the nation has gone through over the past three decades.
That the opposition party faces criticism for going against the public consensus should not allow the ruling party to take unilateral action, such as pushing for an amendment initiated by the president.
Granted, the president is entitled to propose an amendment. But given the divisiveness of Korean politics, any such proposal would face an uncertain future.
Moreover, any proposal for constitutional revision should get approval from two-thirds of the National Assembly members and then a majority of votes in a national referendum.
In other words, any amendment proposal will not go through without the cooperation of the Liberty Korea Party, which controls 115 of the 297 parliamentary seats.
It would be wrong for the party to use the mandate given to it by its voters for a wrong cause. That could backfire as early as the local elections. For its part, the ruling party needs to try harder to persuade the opposition.