[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Impeachment threat is misguidedFrom his first day in office, President Roh Moo-hyun has been on a collision course with the political establishment. In less than a year, the president has energized his opponents and alienated his supporters, leaving him hanging out in the political cold. The current standoff with the National Assembly over a bill to create a special prosecutor to investigate charges against former close aides to the president has spun out of control. The majority Grand National Party has threatened to impeach the president if he vetoes the bill.
Impeachment of a president is serious business, particularly in a country where the peaceful transfer of power is less than a generation old. The consequences of impeachment would be immense and would be felt for years after Mr. Roh and others have left the political arena.
The constitution states that the president and other government officials may be impeached if they “have violated the Constitution and other laws in the performance of official duties.” The process of impeachment is described as follows: “A motion for the impeachment of the President shall be proposed by a majority of the total members of the National Assembly and approved by two-thirds or more of the total members of the National Assembly.” And if the impeachment bill is approved, the constitution states: “In case a vacancy occurs in the office of the President or the President-elect dies, or is disqualified by a court ruling or for any other reason, a successor is to be elected within sixty days.”
As defined in the constitution, impeachment of the president requires proof of wrongdoing with strong political support. Neither of these conditions exists today. None of the current accusations against former aides have implicated the president. Amid spreading economic insecurity, there is little interest in the country for a divisive political battle. President Roh is unpopular, to be sure, but if given a choice, people would rather have an unpopular president in office than the turmoil of impeachment.
Why, then, is the Grand National Party so eager to push impeachment with no grounds and little public support? The answer is clear: “a successor is to be elected within sixty days.” The party wants to force the president from office so that it can capitalize on the situation to take control of the Blue House. The political incentive to impeach results from the lack of a vice presidency, but it also builds an insecurity into the political system that deserves greater scrutiny. The political incentive to impeach makes discussion of the matter ever more serious because impeachment of President Roh could open the door to calls for impeachment of future presidents whenever opposition parties have an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Evolution of the political system in this direction would increase political instability, which would, in turn, increase economic and social instability.
Impeachment rarely damages the accused alone. In the United States, the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 only increased his standing with the public. The Republican leaders of the House of Representatives were hounded from office on charges of misconduct of their own and the party lost seats in Congress in the election that year. The influence of impeachment on the presidential election of 2000 is murky, but the closeness of the vote suggests that it did not help George W. Bush much. With little public support for impeachment, the Grand National Party faces the same political risks, which means that the strategy could easily backfire.
With the historical precedent and political risks of impeachment so high, the Grand National Party should stop using the word until overwhelming evidence of the need to impeach is available. Koreans are too smart to accept rumors and political incentives as evidence for impeachment and are willing to punish crass political greed harshly.
Mr. Roh, meanwhile, should evaluate the bill to create a special prosecutor on its own merits. Creating a special prosecutor may help end the distracting debate, which would allow him to focus on governing. At the same time, it may encourage the opposition to use the impeachment threat to bully the president.
In the end, however, the weight of history requires that the president veto the bill and call the National Assembly’s bluff. No president should be forced to accept a bill under threat of impeachment when the National Assembly has the right to override vetos. In response, the Grand National Party may propose a bill of impeachment, but it would have trouble selling it with no evidence of presidential wrongdoing and without an effort to override the veto first. If the National Assembly cannot override the president’s veto, then it should satisfy itself with the results of the investigation currently under way at the Prosecutor General’s Office.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser