SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - A faction of lawmakers in Ms Park Geun Hye's ruling party is calling for her ouster, putting the opposition closer to the numbers needed to impeach South Korea's president over an influence-peddling scandal shaking Asia's fourth-biggest economy.
Thirty-five Saenuri lawmakers estranged from the party held a meeting after prosecutors said on Sunday (Nov 20) that she "colluded" with former aides in the corruption case. Thirty-two agreed to pursue Ms Park's impeachment and demand that she leave the party, with lawmaker Hwang Young Cheul saying in a briefing that the number of proponents will increase.
In response to the allegations, the presidential Blue House on Sunday questioned the neutrality of the prosecutors, saying the interim investigation was being conducted as if she committed a serious crime.
The president's lawyer also rejected the results of the probe, saying they are based on "imagination and conjecture."
Ms Park has shown few signs that she plans to step down any time soon, despite hundreds of thousands of protesters gathering near the presidential compound over the past two weekends to demand her resignation and arrest. While the nation's constitution protects a president from being indicted, it allows for impeachment should two-thirds of the 300-member National Assembly approve.
Lawmakers from the three opposition parties control a combined 165 seats, while Ms Park's ruling Saenuri Party has 129 seats. Six are with unaffiliated members.
While the opposition parties lack the numbers needed to oust her, a rift within the ruling party may increase the risk of an impeachment motion for Ms Park, said Mr Choi Chang Ryul, a political commentator and professor at Yong In University.
"The opposition will now start contacting ruling-party lawmakers to start their impeachment procedure," said Mr Choi. "While it's the prevailing view that any impeachment motion can be overturned by the Constitutional Court, I personally think it won't be that easy for the judges to do so given the public anger."
Ms Choo Mi Ae, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, said on Monday (Nov 21) that her party would set up an apparatus to push for impeachment, Yonhap News reported. Mr Moon Jae-in, the leading contender to take over as president in opinion polls, said there's a strong case for impeachment. Both urged Ms Park to step down as president first.
Prosecutors on Sunday said they've secured enough evidence to show Ms Park played a role in the scandal, while her long-time confidante Choi Soon Sil extracted money from some of the country's biggest companies and gained access to classified information.
Charges against Choi and a former presidential aide include attempted coercion and abuse of authority, while another aide was accused of leaking classified information, Lee Young Ryeol, the head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office, said on Sunday.
Prosecutors will continue to investigate Ms Park, Mr Lee said. Ms Park is the first South Korean president to be targeted as a suspect in a corruption investigation while in office, and has asked for more time to prepare for her defence. Her approval rating has dropped to 5 per cent, according to Gallup Korea.
The corruption probe has widened to companies including Samsung Electronics Co. and Hyundai Motor Co. amid allegations the conglomerates provided about 77.4 billion won (S$93 million) to two foundations controlled by Choi.
"The companies could not help but follow the demands by Choi and An in fear of facing both direct and indirect disadvantages in their business activities," said Mr Lee.
Samsung's headquarters was raided by investigators earlier this month and an executive of Hyundai Motor was summoned for questioning.
South Korean law stipulates that the Constitutional Court should make the final decision within 180 days after it receives an impeachment proposal from the National Assembly. At least seven judges are required to try an impeachment case, while at least six have to vote for the proposal to be eventually passed.