[Outlook]The people’s ConstitutionThe Constitutional Court ruled that election and voting regulations limiting voting rights of Koreans living abroad are unconstitutional, saying they infringe upon the people’s right to vote and to equality. This ruling reversed an earlier ruling which came out eight years ago, in 1999, that such regulations were constitutional.
In a democratic country, sovereignty lies with the people and voting in elections is the most quintessential expression of that sovereignty. Thus, the people’s right to vote is their most basic right. The current Constitution was created as a result of the June 1987 civil democratic uprising 20 years ago, and the Constitution’s major content guarantees the people’s right to vote.
Under the current Constitution, the non-democratic heritage of the fifth republic was rolled back. Back then, the president was elected in an indirect election held in a sports arena.
But after an amendment to the Constitution, the people directly elect the president. As an institution to fully guarantee people’s basic rights, including the right to vote, the Constitutional Court was introduced.
The Constitutional Court has sometimes been criticized for allowing political forces to influence some cases. But this legal institution demonstrated that clauses in the Constitution, which were formally believed to serve only decorative purposes, impact people’s everyday lives. As a result, the Constitutional Court increased people’s awareness of the Constitution and helped questions of constitutionality take root.
In 1999, the Constitutional Court ruled that limiting the right to vote of Koreans living abroad was constitutional on the grounds that otherwise North Korean citizens or members of the pro-North Korean residents’ league in Japan would be allowed to vote. It was also difficult to guarantee fairness in votingand there were technical difficulties in managing the votes.
This time, however, the judges unanimously agreed to change the old ruling, saying that apart from the possibility of North Korean citizens or pro-North Korean residents in Japan influencing elections, prohibiting people from using their right to vote cannot be justified. They also said technical difficulties in managing elections or votes can be overcome thanks to developments in technology.
As a source at the Constitutional Court pointed out, this decision reflects the changes of the times and also reveals that democracy in Korea based on the current Constitution, which took effect on Feb. 25, 1988, is becoming mature and complete.
In the short history of Korea’s democracy, the Constitution has been revised and distorted many times to prolong a leader’s stay in power or to sanction power assumed through a coup.
But the current Constitution reflects the people’s wishes and hopes, and for nearly 20 years it has remained intact without a single revision, which is very unusual considering the dynamism in Korea’s society.
Of course, some debate the revision of the Constitution. But that also illustrates that Koreans have become familiar with the document that governs the land. So when the Constitutional Court releases its verdicts of “constitutional, unconstitutional or in discord with the Constitution,” the people take the news in stride. That shows that the level of people’s awareness of the Constitution has increased.
We are living in a global era in which seven million Koreans live abroad, so globalization and opening our doors are inevitable steps to take. In this regard, the Constitutional Court’s ruling that Koreans living abroad must be guaranteed the right to vote is very meaningful. The Constitutional Court has set late next year as the deadline for the revision of the election law. The National Assembly, the institution representing the people, should quickly and faithfully pass a law that extends the right to vote to Koreans living in foreign countries.
The people have been familiar with the current Constitution for nearly 20 years and thus understand that it is not a decorative object. The Constitutional Court must remember that the people are watching closely to see if the court is making decisions in the interest of the country and the people, not powerful institutions.
*The writer is a lawyer and publicity director at the Korean Bar Association. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Yoon Sang-il