The Debate

South Korea and Brazil Rejected Their Female Leaders

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The Debate

South Korea and Brazil Rejected Their Female Leaders

The impeachment scandals that entangled Park Geun-hye and Dilma Rousseff smack of misogyny.

South Korea and Brazil Rejected Their Female Leaders
Credit: Cheong Wa Dae

As two democracies barely three decades old, South Korean and Brazilian liberal regimes have already endured a few existential threats on the way to consolidation. The latest test was an almost simultaneous removal from office of their presidents –Park Geun-hye in Seoul and Dilma Rousseff in Brasília. Although the specific impeachment proceedings for the two cases were distinct from each other, some underlying beliefs and follow-up measures hold similarities and point toward misogynistic motivations.

To Make a Long Story Short…

Rousseff took over as the first female president of Brazil in January 2011. During the first two years in office, her left-leaning government received the blessings of Brazil’s middle and upper classes, but in 2013 the boat started to sink. Corruption scandals involving Petrobras – Brazil’s state-run oil company – and the infrastructural arrangements for FIFA World Cup – the football tournament hosted by Brazil in July 2014 – invaded the headlines, even as the economy kept shrinking at an accelerated pace. Although Rousseff was reelected in October 2014 by popular vote for a second presidential term, her victory was promptly contested by PSDB, the main opposition party to Rousseff’s PT-led coalition. From the day after her reelection until August 31, 2016, the date when the Brazilian senate made the decision to oust the president, Rousseff never enjoyed a single moment of truce. She also dealt with every sort of sexist insult before leaving the president’s palace.

In South Korea, Park was sworn in as president in February 2013, also the first female ever to reach such position in her country. After a quick electoral honeymoon with South Korean citizens, this relationship soured after Park’s handling of a literal boat sinking: the Sewol ferry tragedy in 2014. But what finally did Park in were allegations of influence peddling. Park was accused of providing her long-time friend Choi Soon-sil with sensitive information about governmental affairs – even while Choi committed a series of wrongdoings spanning from blackmailing and taking bribes from chaebol to buying her daughter a place at Ehwa Womans University, an elite college in Seoul. Two months after the scandal broke, the National Assembly voted for Park’s presidential impeachment. In March 2017, South Korea’s Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment, officially ousting Park from office. Despite publicly admitting some of her mistakes and apologizing on TV, Park not only lost the presidency but ended up jailed on March 30.

Are the Two Cases Even Comparable?

The late arrival of a woman to the presidency of both countries is not accidental. South Korea and Brazil fare poorly in the world rankings for women’s representation in national parliaments. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an intergovernamental organization dedicated to monitoring legislative branches and spurring cooperation between them, in June 2017 South Korea was number 118th in terms of the number of seats taken by women in Congress, while Brazil ranked 154 out of 193 countries. Moreover, it is worth noting that both Rousseff and Park are single women. Some of Brazil’s working class members used to say that Rousseff was Brazilian former President Lula da Silva’s wife – a false narrative that some people apparently found necessary to justify casting a vote for her. In South Korea, the mental operation behind Park’s election was a bit different: being the heir of a South Korean dictator, Park was bound for leadership. Either way, the implied message is one and the same: A lady cannot thrive in politics unless she is backed up by a strongman.

Brazil was a pioneer in extending democratic suffrage to women in the early 1930s. Nonetheless, this never meant that female leaders were accepted on an equal footing in the most prestigious and important political positions. There has never been, for instance, a Brazilian woman in charge of the ministry of foreign affairs. Being the highest diplomatic representative of Brazil remains, in the 21st century, an exclusively masculine endeavor. Not even Rousseff dared to nominate a woman to run the patriarchal chancellery in Brasília.

Actually, the president herself was judged for being a woman. One episode is telling in this regard: At the 2014 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony, which was exhibited to almost 200 countries around the world, she was booed and called bad names in unison by 80,000 people who were at the stadium. Humiliating as it certainly was, the shouts toward her also had an explicitly sexist content. This pattern has been repeated time and again during her years in politics.

In South Korea, Confucianism has consistently played a part in keeping women at bay in politics. In the eyes of traditional Confucian thinking, before qualifying as an individual, a female is socially seen as a daughter and a wife. Until 2008, the family-head system was constitutionally active in Korea, a monument to patriarchalism that would prevent a woman from using her own family name rather than her husband’s – to cite only one practical consequence.

Unsurprisingly, in the days preceding her impeachment trial, Park was personally hit by South Korea’s social norm, as her friendship with Choi raised questions about her sexuality and religion. In what could be taken as a marked difference between the two stories, however, Park’s right-of-center government never promised to fight gender inequality during her tenure in office. Ironically enough, she apparently ended up being devoured by that political alignment.

Witch-Hunting in the 21st Century?

In South Korea as well as in Brazil, millions took to the streets to demand that these female presidents should be toppled. Rousseff was finally impeached in August 2016 for committing a crime that hardly qualified as a legal reason for deposition. Park was treated like a criminal whose conduct deserved harsh punishment and, as a consequence, was put behind bars a couple of months ago.

What comes next is probably the most revealing about Brazilian and South Korean social establishments. In Brazil, having come to power after heading the campaign for Rousseff’s impeachment, new President Michel Temer failed to nominate one woman for his 30-member cabinet. Most of his nominees were white men aged 60 or older. For Temer, checking price tags at the supermarket is apparently the female role par excellence.

When it comes to South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, his commitment to the formation of a gender-balanced cabinet is good news. However, Moon’s negative stance toward LGBT rights, which he opposed during a TV show while still campaigning for the presidency, is a step backward.

After all these years, two of the most Westernized countries outside of the North Atlantic circle seem not ready to embrace female leadership quite yet.