SEOUL -- With her approval rating at an all-time low of 25%, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has made a gambit to unite the country's moderates and conservatives into a solid base for her eventual successor.
Park, speaking Monday in the National Assembly, proposed amending the constitutionally imposed limit of a single five-year term for the presidency.
In a rare admission of weakness, Park said that while looking back on her three years and eight months in office, she "felt deeply that a few changes of policies and reform initiatives are not enough to fundamentally resolve the problems we are facing."
This sudden turn in her speech proved the prelude to Park broaching a subject over which she had been brooding since the start of her presidency. The term limit obstructs both continuity in policymaking and consistency in foreign policy, the president argued, before announcing she would create a government body to study the issue and propose a bill of amendments before her term ends.
South Korean presidents face the prospect of a lame duck period starting in their fourth year as their voice becomes drowned out by the approach of the next election. Opposition parties intensify their attacks even as leadership struggles emerge within the ruling camp. A multiple-term system, such as allowing two terms over eight years, would ensure that a president's policy agenda can continue uninterrupted, Park's supporters contend.
Even if proponents of such a reform succeed in changing the constitution, the possibility of a second term likely would be enjoyed by Park's successors rather than her. But taking leadership of the amendment debate, which keeps Park in the thick of politics, carries some advantages for a president whose term has been marred by a slowing economy, suspicion of corruption in her inner circle and other problems.
After two straight center-right administrations, many pundits say South Korea is suffering "conservative fatigue." Park's ruling Saenuri Party took a drubbing in the April general election, creating anxiety among conservatives that progressives already are ahead in the race to the presidential Blue House.
More than 80% of National Assembly lawmakers think the constitution needs to change, a South Korean media poll found. Park's supporters believe the issue can unite moderates and conservatives into a "grand coalition" of sorts.
Saenuri leader Lee Jung-hyun, a close ally of Park, is confident moderates and conservatives can work together on the same platform while excluding "fringe" progressives, he told a local newspaper. Lee cited former People's Party leader Ahn Cheol-soo and Democratic Party ex-leader Sohn Hak-kyu as potential partners.
With 16 months left in office, Park is in a race against time. Proposing amendments that opposition lawmakers and the public can agree on will prove no easy task in a charged political climate.