[Viewpoint]The threat of recallA huge sign, big enough to cover a multistory apartment building, flutters in the wind near the intersection of the Jungbu Expressway and the Seoul Outer Ring Circular Road. Motorists slow down to read the big letters that proclaim: “Watch our city! The first one to recall its mayor!”
Frankly, it makes us a bit sad to see people want to be first even in things like this.
The recall system, a horrible sword in the hands of local residents, is shaking up the whole nation since it was enacted on May 25. It is said that the Seoul district heads who created a stir by going abroad for tourism purposes with public funds, and a number of chiefs of local autonomous organizations who became targets of public grievances by forcing unwarranted policies, are going to be the target of the new system.
It is even said that the head of the local government that invited a naval base into its area to serve as the operational center for the country’s new Aegis class destroyer is on the recall list.
Local autonomous organizations that decided to allow the construction of not-in-my-back-yard type of facilities, such as a crematorium and a garbage incineration facility, in their towns are also at risk if residents choose to seek revenge on officials.
On July 1, the heads of local autonomous organizations and the members of local councils will complete the first year of their term ― and this is the very day when the recall system goes into implementation.
The Local Government Act guarantees a four-year term of office for heads of local governments and the members of local councils. Of course, it can be shortened if the courts find an elected official guilty of some kind of malfeasance. But when the recall system goes into effect there will be no guarantee that the term of office will be respected. Even if an official does not violate the law, do anything wrong or abuse the power of his office, he can be subject to recall under the new system. If an official loses the confidence of the voters for any reason, she can be forced to step down from an elected post.
The current recall law does not have a clause listing the valid reasons for launching a recall. It simply stipulates that if more than one-third of residents vote in a special election and a majority want the official ousted, he or she is history. Considering the fact that the turnout in recent local elections was between 40 and 50 percent, it can be said that residents can suspend an elected local official from duty with only 20 percent of the people supporting their demand for a recall. It is such an easy and simple procedure to follow that it may actually be easier to suspend an official than it is to elect the person in the first place.
In Germany, which introduced a recall system right after unification, over 10 percent of local government heads were subjected to recall and about half of that group were actually booted out of office. We should take note that Germany revised the recall law drastically after that.
The checks and balances between the heads of local autonomous organizations and municipal councils is one of the basic principles of democracy and the representative system. Even if local residents participate in the system as a regulator, the roles of the local heads and the councils should be honored. The German recall system, which is similar to ours in that it allows the local council to play a role in making a decision on recall, also stipulates that the expenses for a recall shall be paid by those who demanded it, or by the official subjected to recall.
Except in the case where a new local government head is elected at the same time as the recall vote, as is the case in some parts of the United States, we know of no country that allows an official subjected to recall a period for a “recall prevention campaign,” the equivalent of an election campaign, as the Korean law does.
A recall system is called an emergency brake for the people, a way that voters can have some recourse if an official does not perform his duty properly. This may be a valid sentiment but it can be easily abused.
It is noteworthy that the first debate on the need to introduce a recall system in our society focused on the possibility of the people recalling President Roh Moo-hyun, not local residents going after their local government chiefs.
What would have happened to Roh, whose approval ratings were hovering below 20 percent, if there was a recall system for the president? He might well have been recalled despite his argument that he had simply carried out his duties with conviction and pushed legitimate policies.
The relationship between an election and recall is similar, in a way, to marriage and divorce. The most common reason for divorce is that husband and wife have irreconcilable differences. It is possible that a local mayor will be recalled simply over differences with a segment of local residents. That is not good enough and therein lies the reason why the recall law must be revised as soon as possible.
*The writer is a professor of law at Dongguk University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Choi Bong-seok