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[Opinion] Recall System

Posted May. 26, 2007 03:38,   


2,500 years ago, the citizens of Athens gathered at a plaza called Agora in every spring. The aim of the gathering was to detect the leaders, mainly dictators, who neglected the popular will, deployed policies at a whim, and were likely to threaten the well being of the nation. The selected names were carved into an ostrakon, a piece of pottery, and those whose names were spotted by more than 6,000 people were exiled for a decade.

This system, known as “ostracism,” was the basis for the Greek democracy. But the system ended after just 90 years because it was misused as a means to remove enemies, which was not the system’s initial intent.

The recall system, a modern revival of ostracism, is operated in a number of areas in the U.S. and Japan and some provinces of Switzerland. It was this system than enabled Arnold Schwarzenegger, a muscular Hollywood actor made famous by the Terminator series, get elected governor of California in 2003. The fiscal deficit and the jump in energy prices caused then-governor Gray Davis to be deemed as an incapable governor, and as a result, he had to resign after a recall election. This allowed Schwarzenegger to win the election against more than 130 competitors.

In South Korea, the Recall Act will come into effect on May 25, giving birth to a new system targeting the heads of autonomous areas and the representatives of local assemblies. The complementary measures embodied in the system, such as requirements for recall and the submission of votes, aren’t enough to soothe the nervousness of the expected first targets. If one doesn’t stay aware, the removal of a politician by the people can come at any moment.

The intent of this law will be well served if the surveillance and oversight by citizens are strengthened to improve the transparency and responsibility of local administrations, thereby helping local politicians contribute to national livelihood.

But the edge of this new recall system is two-sided. Because the civil servants under watch have to be more sensitive to the words of citizens, it can get more difficult for them to follow principles for the public good. Also, there is room for losers of elections to abuse the law to shake down their political rivals. It can also hamper regional consolidation by raising competition. Even now, the heads of autonomous bodies are criticized for their tendency to deploy populist policies for re-inaugurations, and such concerns could be greatly compounded by system.

Lee Jin-nyeong, Editorial Writer, jinnyong@donga.com