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SEOUL — Some days ago I received a telephone call from the Office of the Chief Spokesman of the National Assembly. A friendly public-relations officer invited me to write an article for the National Assembly Review with personal observations regarding the challenges for parliamentary politics in South Korea. “Yes, I will submit the article in time,” I said and hung up. Just a few moments later, the phone rang again. “Oh, I forgot to mention, you may add also some critical, even negative points, if you so wish,” said the PR officer. For a little while I paused. Out of courtesy, obviously, I did not express the thought that spontaneously had shot up my mind: Is there anything other than negative aspects to deliberate on regarding the South Korean Parliament?

No doubt, South Korea’s National Assembly has a horrible reputation. Politics in general — and even more so those individuals engaged in this trade — are not held in high esteem in this country. South Korean parliamentarians find themselves on the very bottom of the popularity list. According to one survey published in an academic journal recently, South Korea’s democratically elected National Assembly enjoys the lowest trust out of five institutions. The military, the judicial system, the media and the police are all more popular with the South Korean public than the democratically elected representatives. Interestingly — and definitely also disturbingly from a liberal point of view — the public-approval rating for Parliament has decreased rather than improved over the years of democratic development.

There are numerous explanations for the bleak image of the legislative branch: Unlike the parliamentary systems in Japan, Germany or Britain, South Korea’s National Assembly plays a relatively weak role in the constitutional system. Here the political power rests with the president, who is as close to a temporary emperor as you can get.

The political feebleness of the legislative in the constitutional order is reflected in the media. Compared with other democracies, the South Korean media’s reporting about Parliament leaves much room for improvement. In Germany, for instance, important parliamentary debates are transmitted live on public radio and television and key speeches are documented in daily newspapers. In contrast, the South Korean media seem to focus on negative news from the National Assembly. Often viewers are confronted with images that bear resemblance to a certain athletic competition, and have little in common with a civilized political discourse.

In short, one gets the impression the politicians are preoccupied with fighting it out rather than dealing with their constitutional responsibilities. It is no exaggeration to speak in this context of an effective self-blockade of the legislature. For the first time in history, the gentlemen (and the few ladies) of the National Assembly failed to pass the budget before the expiration of the legal deadline. Lawmakers needed some three weeks overtime before finding a settlement regarding this arguably most important of all legislative responsibilities.

According to one report, last year the Assembly was in session for roughly 200 days. During this time only 34 days were spent passing bills and resolutions. Most of the rest of the time — according to that source — was wasted with what is referred to by the media as “endless partisan bickering.”

The main explanation for the political impasse is that no party has a clear parliamentary majority. Seen from the government’s angle, it is highly problematic that the opposition Grand National Party controls the largest number of seats. It is not unusual in democracies that a government does not command the majority of seats in Parliament. In presidential systems, this occurs rather frequently.

In parliamentary systems, such cases are referred to as minority governments. In such situations one political quality is in high demand: the art of political compromise. Quite obviously, this art of finding the middle ground, of giving and taking, of negotiating and cooperating, yes, of even conceding to the political adversary (who is not an enemy, but a partner) is rather uncommon in South Korea’s domestic politics.

In my eyes, this lack of willingness to compromise is the main problem of South Korean politics today. In his New Year message, President Kim Dae Jung, the undisputed leader of the Millennium Democratic Party, wholeheartedly resolved to change the rules of the political game: “I will realize without fail constructive politics through dialogue and cooperation between the ruling and opposition parties.” But it took only a few hours for this noble intention to be forgotten, as the parties took off their gloves, to fight what one local observer has characterized as another “political war.”

The new political crisis was triggered by an effort of the ruling camp to rearrange the arithmetic constellations in Parliament. Three legislators of the ruling (but minority) MDP defected to the United Liberal Party. This political migration may be called a present — or a political payment — for enticing the small, conservative ULD to renew official cooperation with the MDP and form a coalition government. This time the South Korean public is especially disgusted about what is generally seen as a blatant manipulation of the voters’ wishes. Hardly anyone is willing to accept the government’s argument that a clear majority in Parliament is essential for the success of the reform policy.

“Migratory politics,” the changing of political allegiances, has a long tradition in South Korea. No less than 24 percent of all lawmakers switched political parties in the previous term.

As reported, this list of political defections included 10 lawmakers who actually managed to jump across party borders three times in less than one four-year period. One wonders whether this is not worth a citation in the Guinness Book of Records.

But the matter is too serious to be dealt with in that way: Changing party allegiances is part and parcel of a political culture in which ideologies and political programs play but a secondary role — in the best of cases. The lack of political principles and programmatic consistency is the main reason why the distrust in politics and politicians is on the rise in South Korea. This is not only detrimental to the wellbeing of parliamentary politics, it is also a fundamental challenge to the further consolidation of democracy in South Korea.

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