Losing an election is not the same thing as getting your head chopped off. The Manchester Guardian had a headline recently: “President Puts Head on Block.” The story is about how South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun “put an electoral gun to his head” by calling for a national referendum on whether he should stay in office. Whether it’s gun or chopping block, the metaphor is oddly apt.
That’s exactly how many politicians do regard letting voters decide their fate. Certainly we saw it in the California recall, as Gray Davis desperately scrambled to cling to power. Yet here’s the South Korean president openly calling for a referendum on himself. South Koreans are stunned. They’re used to a more autocratic style from their political leaders. British headline writers are stunned. Roh may think he’s got a surefire maneuver to strengthen his power.
What he claims, however, is that he’s facing a lot of political corruption that is blockading his administration. And he points his finger at the political class. He says, “I have reached a situation in which I cannot conduct the presidency. If the ethical standards of the ruling class of our society can be rectified, then I believe this will be a greater political achievement than what I can accomplish during the remainder of my tenure.”
He seems to think the referendum will be a slap in the right direction. Maybe. In any case, it’s a lot better for a political leader to openly invite the assessment of the voters, than to just bull his way through, regardless.