The tragedy of being a woman in politics

Andreea Brinza | 23 April 2017

Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first female President was dismissed from office by the Constitutional Court, after being impeached by Parliament. She joins a short list of heads of state dismissed during their term, next to the last president who suffered such a fate: Brazil’s first female President, Dilma Rousseff.

During the last three decades, dozens of female politicians have become prime-ministers or presidents, in what was formerly a men’s world. This gave hope that the misogyny and sexism of the past are gone, and female politicians are treated the same as male politicians. Yet, looking at the short history of impeachment procedures against sitting presidents, something interesting comes up: female politicians are more likely to end up dismissed than their male counterparts.

Park Geun Hye wasn’t the first president of South Korea to be impeached: the same happened to Roh Moo-hyun, the president of South Korea between 2003 and 2008, who was impeached in 2004, but was restored to his position by the Constitutional Court. Other famous cases of male politicians who survived impeachment procedures are Bill Clinton, former president of the United States, and Traian Băsescu, former president of Romania, who was twice impeached, only to be returned to his office, by popular or judicial will.

Back in 2012, Traian Băsescu, who used to be one of the most beloved presidents of Romania, was suspended by a simple majority in Parliament. But Băsescu’s fate had to be decided by a popular referendum. Băsescu had already survived a previous impeachment attempt, in 2007, winning the popular vote in a landslide. But this time, his popularity was dismal because of the austerity measures he implemented after the Great Recession. But the Romanian president had a trump – the constitutional card that he played brilliantly. Although the Romanian people overwhelmingly voted to impeach Băsescu, as his supporters boycotted the referendum, and people later took to the streets to protest against him, Băsescu survied, thanks to the Constitutional Court that ruled the referendum invalid, because the legal turnout wasn’t met. Some judges disagreed with the decisions, as Băsescu’s opponents claimed that the turnout should be calculated using the new census data, instead of the old voting files. Even though a legal technicality saved him, Băsescu lost his legitimacy, yet he remained on his feet, refusing to resign. Apart from being helped by the Romanian Constitution and backed by the most influent leaders of the EU, like Angela Merkel, Băsescu is a man.

Moving East towards Asia, we find an interesting parallel in South Korea, where the president elected in 2012 was dismissed because her closest friend, Choi Soon-sil, used influence peddling to get funds from South Korean chaebol companies, like Samsung, for some NGOs coordinated by Choi. It was the sparkle that the opposition party was looking for such a long time, to burst into flames the presidential chair of Park. But for South Korea it wasn’t the first time when it impeached a president, because a decade ago, Roh Moo-hyun, the 9th president of ROK, faced a situation similar to that of Park Geun-hye. But Roh Moo-hyun was a man. The Constitutional Court overturned the impeachment and he was reinstalled, even if the opposition party impeached him for violating the Constitution, because during his term, he created a new political party. It might have been a big culpa, because during the presidential term, a president must not have any political links with any party. Another great difference, apart from gender, is the percent of approval rating of Park (4%) versus Roh (30%). The Constitutional Court, which had a lot of latitude to decide, welcomed back Roh, although he too committed an abuse and violated the Constitution. Meanwhile, Park, as a woman, didn’t have so much luck.

But how can gender decide who must stay or who must leave? The answer is simple: the gender can’t, but the general mindset and stereotypes can. To prove that, let’s take two cases in mirror: one of the American president, Bill Clinton and the other one of the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. The similarities between the two cases are the shaky accusations coming from the opposition. Bill Clinton was accused of perjury and obstruction of justice, while Rousseff was accused of cooking the government’s books. In the both cases the accusers didn’t have enough evidence to prove that the president clearly broke the Constitution, but they succeed in passing a vote in the lower house.

But here come the differences: while his party rallied behind Clinton and defended him in the Senate, where only a simple majority voted to dismiss Clinton, with all Democrats supporting him, Rousseff lost even the support of her coalition and in this way, the support of the Senate. While Clinton’s approval rating remained relatively high, Rousseff became extremely unpopular, even though she wasn’t accused of engaging in corruption herself, unlike most male politicians in the Brazilian Senate or Chamber of Deputies. One can only wonder if a male president in Rousseff’s place would have managed to keep his coalition united and survive impeachment.

The main point in almost all the impeachments, including Băsescu’s second impeachment, is that they came during a crisis. In 2012, Romania was fighting with the raging outcomes of the 2008 crisis, Brazil was engulfed in both an economic and a political crisis, in the form of the Lava Jato (Petrobras) scandal, while South Korea is fighting against a crisis due to sluggish exports and most people despised the collusion between the political and economic elites. So we can figure out from these three cases that the crisis was the convergence point of the presidents’ impeachments.

But the gender is also important in our equation. The truth beneath our stories is that in a man versus woman presidential crisis, a woman will be more likely to lose both popular and elite support. Simply looking at the number of male and women politicians throughout history, the list of impeached presidents lacks proportionality. With more women politicians climbing to the highest levels of power, it will be interesting to see if the imbalance will hold. In the meantime, it seems male and female politicians are still held up to different standards.

Yet with all these women’s victories and subsequent setbacks, these contemporary women in politics teach us a major fact: although they became pantsuits addicted in a world dominated by men, they are breaking barriers and limits. They are the role models that give faith to all the girls around the world, and their fights and their losses will be someone’s future success.

Photo Credits: Park Geun-hye at the end of a speech delivered on March, 1st 2017 (Flickr/Republic of Korea), Park Geun-hye and Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sushma Swaraj (Wikimedia Commons/Korea.net)

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Andreea Brinza

Andreea Brinza is a researcher and the Vice President of RISAP. Her interests are related to the geopolitics, geostrategy and geoeconomics of the Asia-Pacific region and especially China. Her research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative.

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