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(News Focus) Focus of debate over Park's fate shifts to impeachment

2016/11/22 11:42

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Nov. 22 (Yonhap) -- The focus of the political debate over the fate of President Park Geun-hye is swiftly shifting to impeachment after she was embroiled as an accomplice in a high-profile corruption and influence-peddling case surrounding her confidante.

Despite the allegations the prosecution leveled against her on Sunday, the embattled leader has made clear she has no intention of stepping down before her five-year term ends in February 2018, prompting opposition parties to pursue formal action to oust her.

The parties, led by the main opposition Democratic Party, are musing about how they can work together towards Park's impeachment -- a time-consuming and tricky process whose outcome remains hazy.

The presidential office Cheong Wa Dae has indicated Park is willing to face the impeachment trial that will give her a chance to clear her name, and lay to rest all the exaggerated and false accusations being circulated. Her critics argue the president is seeking to stall for time in the hopes of a possible turnaround in public sentiment.

"(We hope the political circles) will address the controversy (over Park's fate) in accordance with legitimate procedures to determine whether the president has to take any legal responsibility (related to the corruption scandal)," Jung Youn-kuk, presidential spokesman, told reporters earlier this week.

This photo, taken on Nov. 20, 2016, shows Jung Youn-kuk, presidential spokesman, addressing a press conference at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on Nov. 20, 2016, shows Jung Youn-kuk, presidential spokesman, addressing a press conference at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Opposition parties remain confident that the accusations against Park constitute "sufficient" legal grounds to unseat her. But Cheong Wa Dae believes those allegations are "politically biased" and a mixture of "imagination and conjectures." Park's lawyer and aides emphasized that while the president can be criticized for failing to keep close tabs on associates whom she mistakenly trusted, she did not do anything illegal.

The parliamentary and legal procedures for impeachment foreshadow a drawn-out battle for both opposition parties and the president.

The impeachment motion can be submitted by 151 lawmakers, or a majority of the members of the National Assembly.

Currently, the three opposition parties -- the Democratic Party, the People's Party and the Justice Party -- formally pursue presidential impeachment. Considering that their lawmakers total 165, the motion can be tabled without difficulty.

The passage of the motion, however, is more difficult. It requires approval from 200 lawmakers, or two thirds of the total legislators. The number of the opposition parliamentarians, including six independents, stands at 171, far short of the 200 mark.

But more than 30 lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri Party, who are not loyal to Park, have supported the idea of "initiating" the impeachment process, raising the odds that the motion will cruise through the parliament. Yet, it remains to be seen whether the Saenuri lawmakers would actually vote for the motion.

Given that an independent counsel probe into the corruption scandal, along with a parliamentary inquiry, is to begin next month, opposition parties are expected to first watch the progress in the separate probes before submitting the motion.

Public sentiment is also expected to be a crucial variable to determine the timing of the submission.

Citizens have staged massive anti-Park rallies across the nation with their outrage likely to further escalate following the prosecution's interim probe results underscoring Park's complicity in the alleged criminal acts involving her friend Choi Soon-sil and former aides.

Rep. Woo Sang-ho, the floor leader of the Democratic Party, said that his party will seek to submit the motion as soon as it secures the number of lawmakers needed to pass the impeachment motion.

"If the quorum (to pass the motion) is met, we will seek to table it right away, even tomorrow," he said during a meeting with party officials.

Rep. Woo Sang-ho, floor leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, speaks during a meeting with party officials at the National Assembly in Seoul on Nov. 22, 2016. (Yonhap) Rep. Woo Sang-ho, floor leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, speaks during a meeting with party officials at the National Assembly in Seoul on Nov. 22, 2016. (Yonhap)

What follows the parliamentary passage is a lengthy, rigorous judgment at the Constitutional Court.

Upon receiving the motion from the legislature, the top court will adjudicate it, a formal decision process that will take up to six months. During this period, Park will be suspended and the prime minister, picked by her, will serve as an acting president -- a scenario the opposition bloc wants to avoid.

To get the nod from the court, six of the total nine justices must back the motion. But whether the justices would vote to remove the president from office remains uncertain given that they were appointed during the former and current conservative administrations.

The fact that the two of the justices will retire early next year could also affect the adjudication process.

The terms for Park Han-chul, the chief of the court, and Justice Lee Jung-mi are set to end on Jan. 31 and March 14, respectively. The process of appointing their successors could delay the court proceedings as the chief justice's appointment requires the parliamentary approval process that often involves a political tug of war.

This photo, taken on Oct. 12, 2016, shows Park Han-chul, the chief justice of the Constitutional Court, sitting at the court in Seoul during a parliamentary audit. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on Oct. 12, 2016, shows Park Han-chul, the chief justice of the Constitutional Court, sitting at the court in Seoul during a parliamentary audit. (Yonhap)

Still, the court can press ahead with the impeachment deliberations without the two justices. In this case, should two of the seven justices oppose the motion, Park will be able to retain her post.

If six justices back the motion, the nation will hold a presidential election within two months.

The ideological orientations of the justices carry as much importance as the gravity of Park's alleged improprieties.

Some legal experts say that the allegations against the president are enough to push for her impeachment. But others argue the accusations leveled without questioning the president are insufficient to conclude that she actually violated any laws.

In a 2004 impeachment case involving late President Roh Moo-hyun, the court said that to impeach a president, he or she must have engaged in "grave" legal offenses that warrant the dismissal of the president.

The court dismissed the impeachment motion for Roh 64 days after the parliament delivered the motion to it. Roh faced a series of allegations including violating his obligation to maintain political neutrality, openly supporting the then ruling party ahead of a parliamentary race, expressing regrets against the election watchdog for issuing warnings against his remarks, criticizing parliament and connecting the impeachment trial with vote of confidence on his presidency.

The court recognized that Roh broke the law in several cases, but the justices said the violations were not grave enough to remove him from office.

sshluck@yna.co.kr

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