A democracy holds its breath
A STORM had been brewing for months, but the sudden political gust that swept President Roh Moo-hyun from office still took nearly everyone by surprise. Outraged by an impeachment vote on March 12th that seemed to defy common sense, tens of thousands
of South Koreans took to the streets in anger against the countrys two big opposition parties. The presidents core contingent of ardent young supporters are not the only ones on the march. Many
distraught protesters came from South Koreas moderate, usually apolitical, mainstream. They may not like the job Mr Roh has done during his first haphazard year in office; but they are incensed that
the opposition has capriciously brushed aside the nations elected
Long suppressed under authoritarian regimes, South Koreans have enjoyed democracy with growing confidence since the late 1980s. And although Mr Rohs narrow election victory in December
2002 revealed deep and passionate rifts?ideological and generational?most South Koreans had been assuming that these differences would soon be dealt with at the polls: they are due to elect a new legislature in mid-April. So as the opposition parties rambled on last week about impeaching Mr Roh over an apparently
innocuous public comment, most onlookers dismissed it as a stunt
typical of South Korean politics, which usually involve lots of histrionics.
This changed quickly after Mr Roh held a defiant press conference
on March 11th and, in effect, dared the parliament to challenge him. The next day, the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) persuaded several dozen of its wavering MPs to back impeachment. Within hours of the vote, Mr Roh was out of office, the prime minister stepped in as temporary head of state, and the impeachment motion was handed to the Constitutional Court.
In some ways, South Korea is now making it up as it goes along. Arguments have quickly emerged about the interim presidents powers, and whether the opposition can add new charges to the impeachment motion. Local media are delving into the backgrounds of the nine judges on the Constitutional Court, who will decide on Mr Rohs case by a two-thirds majority. Three were
appointed by the same political parties that have just voted for impeachment; another three by Mr Rohs predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, many of whose supporters have fallen out with Mr Roh; and the remaining third by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. But despite the heavily political nature of the appointment system, the courts defenders say that it will operate above the fray.
If so, then Mr Roh has a good chance of landing back in office, since the core charge against him seems, on the face of it, ridiculous. He has been impeached for saying that he would do whatever is legally possible to help the Uri party, which backs him, gain seats in the election. Although presidents are barred from campaigning in legislative elections, this answer to a reporters question was harmless. The president could face a stiffer test, however, if the court starts digging thoroughly into a corruption scandal that has engulfed close aides and family members.
For all the uncertainties, however, the country seems to have handled the first week of the storm well, with reassuring implications for its democracy. Despite a multinational stand-off over the nuclear programme in North Korea?which has accused the United States of being responsible for the political crisis and demanded that bilateral economic talks between North and South now be held on its territory rather than in the “unstable” South?and
fierce differences of opinion over the role that American soldiers should play in South Korea, the alliances ability to function has not been in doubt this week. The prevailing sentiment, moreover, is that peaceful protests and ballot boxes will see South Korea through its domestic crisis.
The electorate may now be itching to punish the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), the main force behind the impeachment vote. The MDP seems to have risked everything in a last-ditch attempt to avoid extinction, following Uris formation last year by defecting MDP lawmakers loyal to Mr Roh. In South Koreas personality-dominated politics, this left the MDP holding few levers
of power (it has probably just pulled its last one). Many of its followers had already abandoned it before the impeachment vote, especially young voters in the sprawling conurbation around Seoul. Since the impeachment, many other MDP voters, who had been torn between their party and Mr Roh, now seem ready to back the Uri party.
The main opposition party, the GNP, was also expected to perform poorly at the polls?and has apparently chosen to gamble by ousting Mr Roh. Seven out of ten South Koreans oppose the impeachment. And the popularity of the Uri party, which was thrown out of parliament for physically trying to block the vote, has now soared above 50 percent, boosted by many previously undecided voters.
There is still a good chance, therefore, that South Korea will avoid a calamity. For now, demonstrators are taking pains to remain peaceful, for fear of losing the high ground. If the Uri party does well at the polls, as is now expected, and if the Constitutional Court, finding no proof of presidential corruption, decides there is really no case, then Mr Roh will find himself back in office, and a pair of reckless political parties will have been punished. The rifts in South Koreas electorate would remain, and Mr Roh might still run the country as incompetently as before. But South Koreans would emerge even more confident than before in the health of their democracy. Should the Constitutional Court vote against Mr Roh without a compelling reason, however, the storm could intensify and sweep away something far more precious than an unpopular president.