News analysis

Impeaching President Park Geun Hye can be done but may be unwise

Analysts say process is tedious and long, and may not achieve desired outcome

Calls to impeach South Korean President Park Geun Hye have grown after prosecutors labelled her an accomplice in a snowballing corruption and influence-peddling scandal that has rocked the nation.

The country's three main opposition parties, which hold the majority in Parliament, decided on Monday to push for impeachment as Ms Park has refused to resign. Her lawyer refuted the prosecutors' interim report out on Sunday, calling it "politically biased".

If the opposition's motion is passed by Parliament, Ms Park will become the second head of state to face impeachment, after the late Roh Moo Hyun in 2004.

Prosecution investigators confiscating items from Ewha Womans University in Seoul yesterday during a raid amid allegations that the university gave unlawful favours to Choi's daughter.
Prosecution investigators confiscating items from Ewha Womans University in Seoul yesterday during a raid amid allegations that the university gave unlawful favours to Choi's daughter. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

However, analysts warn that impeachment is a tedious and time-consuming process riddled with uncertainties that may not achieve its desired outcome. It could also backfire, as in the case of Mr Roh, whose impeachment was overruled by the Constitutional Court.

Seoul National University law professor Lee Jae Min said impeachment is legally possible but may not be politically wise. "If voluntary withdrawal is not the case, the only way to force a sitting president out is the impeachment procedure." But he added that the impeachment process could take seven to eight months - a long and unpredictable wait.

Public calls for Ms Park to resign have grown. Since last month, up to a million people have taken to the streets each Saturday to protest over her complicity in her long-time friend Choi Soon Sil's alleged meddling in state affairs for Choi's gain. Choi and two of Ms Park's former aides were indicted on Sunday on charges including abuse of authority and extortion.

For the impeachment process to begin, the opposition will need to gather 200 votes to fulfil a two-third majority in the 300-seat Parliament. As the opposition hold only 165 seats, they will need to win over all the six independents and at least 29 lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri Party. There are signs they might be able to do so. A survey conducted by the daily Munhwa Ilbo on Sunday showed that 31 out of 65 Saenuri lawmakers were willing to support impeachment.

If the motion is passed, Ms Park would be stripped of her powers while awaiting a final decision by the Constitutional Court. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn would step in as acting president.

The Constitutional Court has 180 days to decide on the case. Six out of the nine constitutional judges must support impeachment for it to be passed. But the likelihood of this happening is not high as six of them are known to support Saenuri.

Experts said the judges will review the case strictly and will not be swayed by opposition demands. In 2004, the Constitutional Court rejected Mr Roh's impeachment on charges of illegal electioneering, which the judges said was "not serious or grave enough" to justify the unseating of the president.

New York-based Fordham University law professor Youngjae Lee, who wrote a book on Mr Roh's impeachment, said the Constitutional Court gave examples of acts that could damage the constitutional order to such an extent that impeachment is necessary. These include corruption, abuse of presidential power and manipulation of election results. "Whether the acts involved in (Ms Park's) case rise to that level will of course depend on what the facts are," he added.

A long-drawn impeachment process in the face of global uncertainty brought on by the election of an unpredictable president in the United States, a volatile North Korea and China's growing muscularity may not bode well for South Korea.

There is also the question of who can replace Ms Park. The various parties are split over whether to appoint a new neutral prime minister to replace Mr Hwang, who was picked by Ms Park, and seem unprepared for a presidential poll that has to be held within 60 days of the President's ouster.

Political scientist Balbina Hwang, a visiting professor at Georgetown University in Washington, said: "These are very precarious times for South Korea... The public outrage and pillorying of Park Geun Hye is an embarrassing sign that emotion and public hysteria are stronger than rational and objective reflection of issues that are truly crucial for the nation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2016, with the headline 'Impeaching Park can be done but may be unwise'. Print Edition | Subscribe