South Korea – Presidential powers amid opposition boycotts

President Park Geun-hye may have her work cut out for her: the failure of the government to pass a legislative bill for three months between September and December, culminating in the delayed passage of the budget bill for the 11th consecutive year, highlights the effectiveness of the opposition to challenge and even upend the government’s agenda.

The main opposition party – the Democratic Party – had boycotted parliamentary proceedings for 101 days since September over the role of the National Intelligence Service in the 2012 presidential elections. The DP returned briefly to the legislature in November but has continued to periodically boycott the Assembly.

President Park’s response has been two-fold. On the one hand, her government has extended conciliatory gestures towards the opposition. Thus, for instance, the ruling Saenuri party has agreed to opposition demands to install special committees to reform the National Intelligence Service and local elections respectively, in order to return the main opposition party, the Democratic Party, to parliamentary proceedings and out of its boycott of the legislature. The President’s budgetary speech to the National Assembly in November – decked in blue, the Blue House color and also the main opposition party’s official color – also promised compromise with the opposition.

On the other hand, the President has pressed ahead with senior official appointments over the objections of the opposition while her government is looking for ways to temper the National Assembly Advancement law. The Assembly Advancement Law, approved in 2012 and operative this year, requires a three-fifth majority to bring bills from standing committees to the plenary, and limits the Assembly Speaker’s ability to bring a bill to passage to three situations: national disasters, wartime conditions, or with agreement between the ruling and opposition parties. While this has limited the ability of the ruling party to bulldoze the opposition – and, consequently, reduced the physical altercations in the parliament that often followed ruling-opposition party clashes over legislative railroading – the ruling party has also been stymied in its efforts to legislate, as the no-legislation-in-3-months condition illustrates.

If approval ratings provide any indication, President Park’s mixed approach is the way to go. In particular, approval ratings taken a week after the failed three-way talks with leaders of ruling and opposition parties showed the President with over 60 percent approval, and with more respondents blaming the opposition for the legislative stalemate than the President or the President’s party.

The foreign press was quick to label President Park as Korea’s Iron Lady when she was elected in 2012. Perhaps President Park’s two-fold approach is better captured by the Asian open-hand-over-closed-fist approach: trained and able to fight but would prefer not to.

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