[OUTLOOK]Impeachment is too drasticLast Wednesday, the National Election Commission ruled that President Roh Moo-hyun’s statement supporting Our Open Party in a news conference did not fall under Article 255 of the Act on the Election of Public Officials and the Prevention of Election Malpractices, which enumerates illegal campaign activities. The commission did, however, rule that the president’s statement violated Article 9, which says it is the duty of public officials to maintain neutrality in elections. It requested the president to follow that law.
A constitutional institution, the National Election Commission, has checked another constitutional institution, the president. Such a decision by the commission would have been unthinkable in the past, when the president wielded omnipotent power and ruled all state organs. The commission’s decision is symbolic of how much independence government organs have gained from each another and how the mechanism of checks and balances has been established since the democratization of the country.
In answer to the commission’s decision, the two major opposition parties, the Grand National Party and the Millennium Democratic Party, have demanded a public apology from the president for the breach of election laws and the corruption charges against his aides.
Should the president refuse, that would be reason enough for impeaching him, the two parties announced after separate meetings. This hard-line stance from the opposition parties comes in answer to an aggressive election strategy of the Blue House and Our Open Party for next month’s legislative elections.
Such a situation was bound to happen sooner or later. The president holds a dual status as politician and public official. It would go against common sense in any modern democracy to demand that the president, the politician among all politicians, not to make any political statements or moves.
However, because South Korea has an unfortunate legacy of government-manipulated elections, we must all the more demand that the president, who is both the head of the state and the chief supervisor of the elections, to maintain political neutrality.
The Blue House has announced that although it would respect the commission’s decision, it did not agree with it. It is true that the election laws should be revised in the near future to further clarify the scope and limits of president’s political activities. But in the meanwhile, the president and the Blue House must accept the commission’s decision.
Moreover, the president should not use the logic of “comparative superiority” to make excuses for the involvement of his aides in illegal campaign funds and corruption charges. Instead, he should humbly accept the criticism.
The opposition parties have resorted to the extreme measure of calling for the president’s impeachment. Between them, the Millennium Democrats and the Grand Nationals have the votes for the introduction and passage of an impeachment motion against the president. It is highly debatable, however, whether such a “killer move” would be the best thing right now.
Once an impeachment motion is passed, the president’s powers are suspended and the prime minister becomes the acting president. Within six months, the Constitutional Court must hold an impeachment trial and six out of the nine judges must rule in favor for the impeachment to be final.
The impeachment of the president would bring a vacuum in state governance, causing chaos and unbearable damage to our national status and interest. The opposition parties should seriously ponder the question of who would have to pay the price for all this.
Legal minds are still arguing about whether it is appropriate to introduce an impeachment motion against the president for violating Article 9 of the election act, a provision without any punitive provisions. It seems highly unlikely that the impeachment would win the approval of six Constitutional Court judges even should the National Assembly introduce and pass the motion. The opposition parties should be aware that the biggest victims of their unreasonable plan to impeach the president would be the people, and that they would be adversely affected by its aftermath.
The two parties should turn around and look at themselves in their irrational pursuit of the president’s impeachment. The people are mindful of the breach of election campaign laws by President Roh and his aides and the corruption charges against some of his aides.
But they also remember the opportunistic behavior of certain Millennium Democratic Party members during the presidential election and the fact that the party carried out a classical gerrymandering bill on the last day of the Assembly’s regular session. It has yet to be forgotten that the Grand National Party received (literally) a truckload of illegal campaign money from big firms and it allegedly paid legislators from other parties to switch sides and join it. If the president deserves to be impeached, the National Assembly deserves to be dismissed.
If the opposition parties want to judge the misrule of the president and the government, they should do so through the general elections just around the corner. Trying to manipulate the elections for their own needs is not an act to be done by the representative organs of the people. Mutual destruction in politics is the last thing our society needs right now. What we need is to agree on and pass better election-related laws and establish the “rules of the game” in time for the general elections.
Then the politicians should get on with concentrating on public welfare and the economy.
* The writer is a professor of law at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Cho Kuk