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(LEAD) (News Focus) Passage of impeachment motion heralds another period of political turbulence

2016/12/09 19:55

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with new info)

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Dec. 9 (Yonhap) -- The passage of an impeachment motion against President Park Geun-hye over alleged corruption Friday will herald another period of political turbulence with intraparty division and ideological rivalries set to escalate amid the prospects of an early presidential election next year, observers said.

Further complicating the volatile political landscape are the persistent calls from disgruntled citizens and opposition politicians for Park to resign immediately, with the embattled leader unlikely to take such a step pending the impeachment trial that could last up to 180 days.

The National Assembly passed the motion to impeach Park by a 234-56 vote, making it the first such case in about a dozen years.

Upon receiving the legislature's written approval for the motion, Park was suspended and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn began acting president -- a development bound to deepen concerns of a prolonged leadership vacuum.

This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows President Park Geun-hye and the main chamber of the National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap) This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows President Park Geun-hye and the main chamber of the National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap)

"Following the passage of the motion, political circles are likely to get discombobulated with the already fractured ruling party certain to face more serious factional division and opposition parties trapped in internal feuds over who will become their standard-bearers in next year's presidential vote," said Kim Hyung-joon, a politics professor at Myongji University.

"With both ruling and opposition parties descending into confusion, the nation's politics will be thrust into a state of flux," he added.

Aside from each party's infighting, partisan disputes over the fate of the president will continue to roil the political waters, analysts said.

Park's political foes continued to press her to bow out, arguing her early departure is the only way to "normalize" state affairs and lift the nation out of the spiraling political quagmire.

The main opposition Democratic Party, however, signaled a shift from its earlier stance on Park's resignation, saying it would, for now, prioritize stabilizing state affairs. The party proposed forming a consultative body consisting of parliamentarians and government officials to minimize any governance vacuum.

Choo Mi-ae, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, attends a meeting of senior party officials at the National Assembly in Seoul on Dec. 9, 2016. (Yonhap) Choo Mi-ae, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, attends a meeting of senior party officials at the National Assembly in Seoul on Dec. 9, 2016. (Yonhap)

The Democratic Party had previously vowed to push for Park's resignation even after the impeachment vote.

The ruling Saenuri Party opposes Park's departure in the midst of the impeachment trial, stressing that the act of ignoring the adjudication process and forcing Park to resign is "anti-constitutional."

   If Park voluntarily or involuntarily resigns before her term ends in February 2018, the nation will hold a presidential election, which is originally set for December next year, within two months in accordance with the Constitution.

Observers say the election could take place as early as February next year if Park offers to resign this month. If Park decides to wait until the end of the impeachment trial, the election date could be stretched back to August or later.

In a 2004 impeachment case involving former President Roh Moo-hyun, it took 63 days for the court to deliver its ruling against his impeachment. But given the complexity of the present case involving Park, justices may need more time for their adjudication, analysts said.

To get the nod for Park's impeachment, six of the total nine justices at the top court must back the motion. But whether the justices would vote for it remains uncertain given that they were appointed during the former and current conservative administrations. In addition, Park is expected to challenge charges leveled against her by state prosecutors.

This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows President Park Geun-hye and the Constitutional Court in Seoul. (Yonhap) This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows President Park Geun-hye and the Constitutional Court in Seoul. (Yonhap)

The possibility of an early election is likely to put liberals and conservatives on collision course as they would scramble to back their own representatives in winning the presidential office, observers said. It would also deepen factional enmities in rival parties, which could give rise to splinter groups consisting of party defectors.

"After the passage of the impeachment bill, parties will go into overdrive to turn the political pendulum in their own favor as the election may come earlier than scheduled," said Lee Jung-hee, politics professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

The parliamentary approval for impeachment dealt a fatal blow to the ruling party's unity, given that a faction loyal to the president had made a flurry of last-minute efforts to block their colleagues, who are not close to Park, or "non-Parks," from backing the move to oust Park.

"The two factions within the ruling party will no longer be able to stick together under the Saenuri banner after the impeachment vote," said Jun Kye-wan, a political analyst. "One of the factions is likely to bolt from the party and create its own party."

   With her party teetering on the verge of disintegration, Park will be ensconced within the presidential office during the duration of the impeachment trial.

Pending the trial, Park will continue to maintain her title as head of state and receive presidential treatment in terms of security protection. But she will not be able to exercise her presidential powers, including those to lead Cabinet meetings, make government appointments, sign treaties and lead other state affairs.

As for the role of the acting president, legal interpretations vary. But the prevailing idea is that the prime minister may largely seek to maintain the "status quo" rather than actively exercise presidential authority, particularly in the realm of security and foreign policy.

sshluck@yna.co.kr

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