Challenges ahead for revitalised Roh

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 April, 2004, 12:00am

Most South Korean people opposed last month's impeachment of their president, Roh Moo-hyun. Thursday's parliamentary election result was largely their way of expressing dissatisfaction with the politicians responsible for the debacle.

But in handing a majority to the newly formed Uri party, they have also set the stage for one of the most liberal governments in the country's history. Much has to happen before this government can exercise its mandate, however, and it may be months before we know what a Uri-led government will do.

Mr Roh must first be reinstated by the Constitutional Court that is now reviewing the impeachment, after which he plans to join the party. Then the real work will begin for the president and his allies in Uri. The former was swept into office this time last year by young voters who wanted to see deeper economic reforms and successful reunification with a potentially nuclear and highly unstable North Korea. What they got was the bursting of a domestic credit bubble and campaign finance scandals, along with factional politics and little progress on the North Korean question.

Even after the Uri victory and a probable dismissal of the impeachment vote by the court, many of the same challenges will remain. An export-led recovery relies heavily on a booming Chinese economy and could stall if mainland growth slows, while domestic consumption is still weak. The campaign scandals implicated the opposition but also members of Mr Roh's inner circle. The public will want to see an end to South Korean chequebook politics.

In government matters, conservatives from the Grand National Party have always been put off by Mr Roh's informal style and off-the-cuff remarks. Although the GNP's sliding fortunes will see it come into the new parliament with only about a third of the seats and the Uri has a slim majority, Mr Roh will still have to tread a diplomatic path to ensure stability. People are tired of the divisions that have marked South Korean politics for decades.

Until the impeachment question is cleared up, we can expect to see a status quo government. Mr Roh's stand-in, Prime Minister Goh Kun, has already pledged to continue existing policies. If there are any policy debates set to take centre stage in the coming months, it will be the South Korean pledge to send some 3,000 soldiers to reconstruction and frontline positions in Iraq. The minority Democratic Labour Party has promised to introduce a bill on the despatch, and the public may line up behind it if violence against foreign troops and aid workers in Iraq continues.

On the economic front and with regard to North Korea, there will be no radical shifts anytime soon.

But if and when the impeachment is overturned, Mr Roh and Uri will have a chance to achieve their liberal agenda.