To what extent should impeachments be exercised in democracies? South Korea and the Philippines offer two opposing answers.
In a Washington Post op-ed, Christian Caryl argued that South Korea had just shown the world how democracy is done via the historic decision of Republic of Korea’s (ROK) Constitutional Court to impeach President Park Geun-hye in March 2017. This symbolizes a face-redeeming move, given that it faced a democratic crisis in 2003 with former President Roh Moo-hyun’s failed impeachment.
On the other hand, Philippine democracy has set a new low on May 11, 2018, as the Supreme Court voted to oust its Chief Justice, Ma. Lourdes Sereno. The decision was in response to a quo warranto petition filed by Solicitor General Jose Calida, accusing the Chief Justice of illegally usurping the position when she was appointed by former President Benigno Aquino III in 2012. This has prompted a massive public outcry from various sectors of the society, with some groups calling for President Duterte’s ouster. It has also prompted the resurgence of narratives from the Philippines’ dictatorial past as the move to undermine judicial independence was reminiscent of what the dictator Ferdinand Marcos did to the Supreme Court under his authoritarian rule.
Impeachment as a Political Tool
Democracy’s sophisticatedly fashioned system of checks and balance has long provided its people with a safety net from erring officials. While democratic countries vary in the types of impeachable officials, the political function of an impeachment is to prevent the excessive and abusive exercise of power by enabling the legislature to subject a high official into a trial.
While this appears to be a mark of a complex and strong set of democratic institutions, an impeachment is often used by an incumbent against an opponent as a move to subvert democratic processes. That instead of being used to penalize abusive officials, it is used by abusive officials to penalize their political opponents; and this is where South Korea and the Philippines can offer us with two opposing examples.
South Korea: A Young Role Model for Asian Democracies
Ex-President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment has shown the world that strong democratic norms are the backbone of democratic institutions. In a decision made by ROK’s Constitutional Court on March 10, 2017, Park was removed from office via due process and was arrested along with her close friend Choi Soon-il and two of her presidential aides.
Reports prior to the impeachment trial indicate that Park tried to resign from the presidency and attempted to offer the National Assembly a peaceful transition to a new president instead of undergoing the trial, which was denied. This, according to members of the assembly, is nothing but a scheme for Park to elude from the proceedings. The assembly’s decision is remarkable as it shows the independence and autonomy of the legislature from the executive. It also demonstrates a strong adherence to democratic norms as erring officials, regardless of connection and party affiliation within the government must be subject to due process. The success of the impeachment, for South Korea, is a clear-cut result of lessons learned from the failed impeachment of one of its crisis-infested regimes led by ex-President Roh Moo-hyun.
Philippine Democracy’s Burial
Philippine democracy has long been dead; the CJ’s ouster is just an additional nail in the coffin. Decades of elite rule have left the country’s democratic institutions under siege. The Philippines has been known to have a high voting turnout every election season relative to its counterparts, yet its everyday conduct of democracy is often the subject of many controversies.
While it did not exactly come as a shock considering how President Duterte treats his opponents, the crisis prompted a public outcry with various groups labeling the act as “Dutertyranny”. Some say it is reminiscent of how former President Marcos, during his authoritarian rule, has treated dissenting justices and have completely disregarded judicial independence. The only difference is that the ouster is legitimized and actualized through the misuse of a democratic process.
The issue is this: the ousted Chief Justice was anticipating an impeachment trial after the House of Representatives approved of the articles of impeachment against her. When Solicitor General Jose Calida (a Duterte appointee) filed for a quo warranto petition against CJ Sereno, the country’s system of checks and balance has been undermined, as well as her right to undergo a public trial for the charges to which she was accused of. The CJ’s right to respond to the ruling within 15 days has also been invalidated by the justices, making her a lawyer with an administrative case before the Supreme Court instead of an impeachable official.
Lessons to Draw from South Korea
The erosion of Philippine democracy may have commenced more than a decade ago among past regimes, but one thing is certain: CJ Sereno’s ouster is a manifestation of a decades-long, tradition-bound practice of non-adherence to democratic norms.
The South Korean National Assembly’s rejection of Park’s resignation is a statement that erring officials are mandated to undergo a trial should there be accusations against them. After which, standard operating procedures for the election of a replacement have been strictly followed to maintain democratic legitimacy. The case of the Philippines, however, shows the ulterior motive to by-pass the Senate which is tasked to convene as an impeachment court to subject the Chief Justice under a trial.
The Philippines may look into the way South Korean democracy has been operating should President Duterte aim to maintain his political legitimacy. Whether recent controversies would develop into a constitutional crisis or not is an event that Filipinos are waiting to unfold. It is being anticipated, but not happily looked forward to. The Philippines may be an old democracy, but it has a lot to learn from South Korea, one its many younger counterparts.
(Photo courtesy of Korea.net: South Korean President Moon Jae-in with Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte )