[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Referendum is counterproductiveIt didn’t take long for the permanent campaign to begin. If President Roh has his way, a national referendum on confidence in the president will be held on Dec. 15. If he wins the referendum, then he will continue in office and accelerate his reforms, but if he loses, he will resign so that a new presidential election can be held in April with the general election for the National Assembly. The proposed referendum has added high drama to the already tense political situation.
In a presidential system, a fixed term of office gives stability and structure to the political process. At election time, the people believe that they are choosing a leader for a set time, a thought that adds seriousness to the process. Once in office, politicians invest their egos in supporting or opposing the president, partly because they know how long he will be in office. Most presidential systems have midterm elections for the legislature as a way to express confidence in the president. They also have methods for removing the president from office for grave breaches of trust.
The proposed referendum implies that presidential terms are not fixed, but subject to the will of the people. If so, then winning and holding the office of president demands a permanent campaign that turns the president into chief cheerleader. In the process, the office of the presidency is reduced, which makes elections less serious and governing more difficult. Good leaders are always in touch with public opinion, and they do not need national referendums to tell them which way the political winds are blowing. Instead, they use their leadership to gather allies to help in the task of building and maintaining public support.
The details of the referendum are not yet clear, but presumably it will focus on whether people have confidence in Roh Moo-hyun’s leadership. “Confidence,” of course, is a matter of trust, rather than of policy, and the key is his character. This raises a question: Why focus on Roh Moo-hyun the person, rather than Roh Moo-hyun the president?
One answer is opinion polls. Snap polls after the referendum announcement show the president winning a referendum on confidence, even as other polls give the president low marks for job performance. If the referendum focused on job performance, then the president would be in a less advantageous position. At a deeper level, patriotism is running in the president’s favor because most Koreans want their country to do well. They are not comfortable with idea of driving a president from office so early in his term and without overwhelming cause. Voters over the age of 35 want to see democracy work and fear the political instability of a change in presidents.
From the perspective of recent history, the proposed referendum is highly problematic because it interrupts the stability of presidential rule that has been established by the three former presidents elected since 1987: Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam, and Kim Dae-jung. All three were unpopular from the middle until the end of their terms, but there was no serious talk of forcing them to leave office early. All three faced swirling corruption scandals involving their family and close aides. Roh Tae-woo went to jail for accepting bribes, and Kim Young-sam left office in disgrace during the economic tailspin of 1997. For all their faults, the people were willing to endure unpopular presidents for the sake of a smooth transition of power.
The smooth transition of power has helped create a more mature political culture that tolerates criticism and encourages lively debate. In turn, the maturing political culture has helped restrain the actions of those who would be corrupt. Though each administration has gone out in disgrace, the severity of the scandals has decreased over time. The maturing political culture has also given the National Assembly greater independence from the president, turning it into a partner in policy formation. Kim Dae-jung left office with a record of substantial legislative accomplishment, even though his party never had a majority during his term of office.
The referendum idea is now in the hands of the National Assembly which has the power to change the law. The National Assembly should reject the idea unconditionally. Such a rejection might sting the president, but like bitter medicine it will help him recover from the crisis of confidence that often muddles his judgment. The stage will then be set for a more meaningful vote of confidence in the president and his leadership next April.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser