[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Impeachment ruling has risks

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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Impeachment ruling has risks

The impeachment trial of President Roh Moo-hyun ended as predicted: The impeachment bill was rejected and the president returned to office.
In announcing its verdict on May 14, the Constitutional Court found Mr. Roh guilty of violating election laws, but stated that the violations were not serious enough to justify his removal from office. This grand compromise allowed the court to reprimand the president while preventing the political convulsion that would have come with a decision to remove him from office.
The next day, a triumphant but somber President Roh apologized to the nation, leaving the impeachment fiasco to the historians.
Contemporary history is risky business, but the outlines of the historical debate over impeachment are already clear. Was the bill of impeachment justified? Was the Constitutional Court’s verdict correct? What precedent did impeachment set? And what does it all mean?
At present, most people believe that the bill of impeachment was based on trumped-up charges relating to minor offenses.
Out of spite and anger, the opposition was eager to drive the president from office and seized on whatever evidence it could muster. Compared with the misdeeds of previous presidents, the charges against Mr. Roh were indeed minor by comparison.
This narrative will remain valid as long as the National Assembly believes that Mr. Roh is upholding the law. It may disagree with him on matters of policy, but that is normal in a republic with a division of power between the executive and legislative branches.
If doubts spread about the president’s honesty in upholding the law, then impeachment will begin to appear as a justified and forward-looking move to oust an inappropriate leader. President Roh’s actions for the rest of his term will have the greatest influence on history’s interpretation of the bill of impeachment.
The Constitutional Court’s verdict is more problematic. The compromise that appears so grand right now carries historical risk because it sets an odd precedent for the future.
By failing to remove the president for breaking the law, the court essentially gave future presidents permission to break minor laws without the threat of removal from office.
The problem with this logic is where to draw the line. Which laws are breakable and which are not? Is the standard for determining which laws are breakable dependent on the political winds?
Instead of aiming for a grand compromise, the court should have come down firmly on one side.
If it did not believe the president’s transgression was impeachable, it should have stated that the law itself was unconstitutional because it prevented the president from doing what leaders in all mature democracies have the right to do: appeal to the people for support.
Besides restoring Roh to power and preventing political chaos, this would have started a long-overdue debate on the constitutionality of election laws.
For example, does the ban on public opinion polls during the official campaign period restrict freedom of speech?
Historical interpretation of the grand compromise depends on how Mr. Roh and his immediate successors handle themselves in office.
If President Roh finishes his term successfully and corruption scandals prove less than previous administrations, then the grand compromise will shine.
And it will shine more if corruption continues to decline after he leaves office.
The opposite scenario will raise questions about the grand compromise as historians wonder whether Mr. Roh’s removal from office would have set a higher standard for future leaders to follow.
Over time, however, Constitutional Court’s verdict will prompt historians to look at the structures that governed the impeachment processes as much as the consequences of the impeachment itself.
They will see that most political of acts ended up in the hands of the most apolitical of institutions. They will see that the trial coincided with a general election that went strongly in the beleaguered president’s favor.
And they will wonder whether the blurring of the legal and political lines brought damage to all three branches of government.
In the end, the impeachment of Roh Moo-hyun tarnished all three branches of government and the constitution that created them. Recovery is possible with time, but it would gain strength from reforms that address the inherent structural flaw of forcing the apolitical Constitutional Court to make a political decision.
Creating an upper house that, among other things, can sit in judgment, or letting the people decide in a national referendum, would ensure that future presidential impeachments, if any, are resolved politically.
A parliamentary system, of course, allows votes of no confidence for policy failures as well as legal and ethical ones.

* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.

by Robert J. Fouser
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