South Korea’s impeachment crisis: What happens now?

Seoul – The South Korean parliament’s successful impeachment of President Park Geun-Hye on Friday will do little, in the short term, to al...

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Seoul – The South Korean parliament’s successful impeachment of President Park Geun-Hye on Friday will do little, in the short term, to alleviate the deep sense of political uncertainty that has gripped the nation for months.

The impeachment process, triggered by a snowballing corruption scandal, could still have months to run before Park finally leaves office, and there is even a chance she could remain in power.

Here are answers to just some of the questions thrown up by the biggest political crisis in South Korea for a generation.

– Is Park now the ex-president? –

No. The adoption of the impeachment motion means that Park’s sweeping executive powers are suspended and transferred to her prime minister.

But she will retain her title and remain in the presidential Blue House while the Constitutional Court considers whether her impeachment is valid or not – a process that could take up to six months.

If the court confirms impeachment, then she will be immediately and permanently removed from office.

If it rejects the motion, then the suspension of her powers will be lifted and she can technically continue as president until the natural end of her five-year term in early 2018.

– Which way is the court likely to rule? –

On paper, the court might be expected to favour Park. All its nine justices were appointed by her or her conservative predecessor and a two-thirds majority is required to confirm her impeachment.

But public opinion is hugely in favour of removing the president, with the most recent opinion polls showing support for impeachment running at around 80 percent.

So the justices will be under extreme pressure to uphold parliament’s decision, especially as the opposition-sponsored motion was adopted with the support of a significant number of lawmakers from Park’s own ruling Saenuri Party.

Precedent is on Park’s side. The only other impeachment was of then-president Roh Moo-Hyun in 2004 and, on that occasion, the court rejected the motion passed by the national assembly.

But observers say the charges against Park are far more serious and solid, and she commands a fraction of the public sympathy that Roh enjoyed when he was threatened with the sack.

– What happens in the meantime? –

The court must reach a decision within 180 days, but will be under pressure to rule quickly given the potential damage of continued political uncertainty.

In the interim, Park’s presidential powers technically pass to Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn – an unelected official appointed by Park in May 2015.

Hwang is not popular with the public and does not have the support of the opposition parties who control parliament and would likely block any attempt by Hwang to extend his authority beyond basic acts of daily governance.

This all points to a further extended period of policy paralysis at a time of slowing economic growth, rising unemployment and the constant threat of nuclear-armed North Korea next door.

– And if the court validates impeachment? –

Then Park is out for good and a fresh presidential election will have to be held within 60 days – an event neither the ruling or opposition parties are particularly prepared for.

Opinion polls currently favour Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic Party who lost to Park in the 2012 presidential ballot, but his support base is being undermined by Lee Jae-Myung, the liberal mayor of Seongnam who has ridden the populist wave of anti-Park sentiment with scathing attacks on the president during the current crisis.

Another clear frontrunner would be UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who has professed an interest in returning to South Korean politics after his UN term ends at the end of the year.

– What will be the long-term legacy of the impeachment crisis? –

As well as the public’s personal antipathy to Park, the corruption scandal and ensuing crisis has lifted the lid on growing discontent with income disparities, rising unemployment and the apparently pampered lives of South Korea’s political and business elite.

The scandal has shone a fresh spotlight on the unsavoury ties between politics and commerce that were partially blamed for the 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy that claimed more than 300 lives.

The massive anti-Park demonstrations have called for a new era of cleaner politics and for reforms to make the country’s giant, family-run conglomerates more transparent and accountable.

Source: South Korea’s impeachment crisis: What happens now? | News24