Coming and going of leaders should be just footnotes

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EI SUN OH

EI SUN OH

AS we approach the end of 2016, at least two more cases of national leaders stepping down formally or in substance leapt to the front of media and worldwide attention. The first case concerns Italy’s young prime minister, Matteo Renzi, who previously promised to leave office if the constitutional reform referendum which he championed were defeated. Indeed it was, with a wide margin no less, and Renzi made good his promise.

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When one thinks of Italy, the image of the Roman Empire, one of the cradles of Western civilization pops inexorably into mind. Well, Rome is indeed the capital of modern Italy, but even the city state of Rome was not at first an empire but, just like Athens, the other cradle of Western civilization, a republic. Wealthy and powerful Roman citizens made up the Senate and elected a plethora of leaders with term limits, giving rise to a brief span of democratic splendor. That was more than two millennia ago, but even during the height of its republican period, there was always a dark side to Rome. Slavery was commonplace in those days, and Roman prosperity was built to a large extent upon the exploitation of slave labor. Those who were lucky enough to be born or become Roman citizens indeed led leisurely lives, while those less endowed would have to see the fruits of their hard labor enjoyed by the privileged few.

Rome was keen on outward expansion, and gradually conquered the whole of Europe plus northern Africa and western Asia. The Romans did put up a lot of infrastructure in their various dominions. Some of the major roads of Europe even of today were built upon the solid foundations of ancient Roman roads.

And the Romans like to build straight roads, as in regardless of geological or geographical contours, the roads must be built in straight lines, even if that means scaling mounting heights or crossing water rapids. The phrase “all roads lead to Rome” was evidently not just a cliché, but a common Roman practice so that administrative orders could be delivered to the province at double speed.

When the famous Julius Caesar became its de facto leader, the Rome which stressed military conquest slowly tread the road toward autocratic rule, eventually becoming an empire. Its subsequent split into both a Western and an Eastern component (with the latter’s capital at Constantinople) is well documented in history book and need not be elaborated here.

What is important to note, however, is the fact that modern Italy might not properly be considered the successor state of either the Roman Republic or Empire. In the nineteenth century, there were a few dozen small states which littered the Italian peninsula, with their respective kings and dukes. From the middle of that century, a gradually unified country was forged by farsighted leaders from different parts of the peninsula, but even then, it was still a kingdom.

It was not until after the Second World War, when American bombers nearly flattened Italy–which, under the dictator Benito Mussolini, formed the “Axis” alliance with Hitler’s Germany and militaristic Japan–that the modern Italian Republic was inaugurated.

To prevent another Mussolini (who, by the way, gave rise to the Fascist ideology) from usurping power, the Italian constitution was deliberately designed to tie the hands of the national leadership as much as possible. For example, both houses of the Italian parliament have equal powers in almost all aspects, with any bill capable of being originated in either chamber, and must pass both chambers to become law.

This is in stark contrast to the common political practice in modern democracies whereby the lower house in parliament usually takes the lead. Even in the United States where the Senate is very powerful, bills dealing with finance can only originate from the House of Representatives, with the Senate having the right to approve or reject only. And in British Commonwealth countries, the upper houses are often relegated to being essentially rubber stamps.

The recently resigned Renzi came to power with a determination to ameliorate a stagnant economy with a high unemployment rate. But he was not blessed with a strong parliamentary majority and was often hindered by interested parties. Policy implementation within and beyond Rome was also difficult at best in regions stacked with many levels of governments.

Renzi thus bet his position in pushing for constitutional reform, which included increasing the powers of the lower chambers and streamlining local governments. But in the months leading up to the referendum, the whole issue somewhat inexplicably became one of eliciting the voters’ like or dislike of the European Union, and also their satisfaction with the current situation. As the referendum was defeated, what caught attention was not merely the change of Italian leadership but also its ramifications on the viability of the European Union.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Eurasian continent, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was also impeached by parliament over the scandals involving illegal interference in affairs of state by her close associates. She will probably not be able to exercise the powers of her office until the end of her term. What is important to emphasize is the fact that after many decades of democratic struggle, Korea may be considered a somewhat mature democracy. Even though after the last parliamentary election many different centers of power emerged in its parliament, at the crucial moment, the legislators were still able to pull together to do what was right for their country.

In summary, it is important for citizens to take an active part in building and implementing a healthy political system in a modern democracy. The coming and going of individual leaders, though undoubtedly leaving an impression on the nation’s fate, should appropriately be relegated to no more than a historical footnote.

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