SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's Constitutional Court will on Thursday (Dec 22) start hearings into whether to confirm the impeachment of President Park Geun Hye, with her ruling conservative party deeply split on the issue before a likely fresh election.
The court has up to 180 days to decide whether to uphold or reject Parliament's impeachment of the country's first female president on charges ranging from bribery to abuse of power.
Ms Park has been suspended from her duties since the impeachment vote on Dec 9, with Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn taking over.
If the judges back impeachment after hearing from both sides, she will be formally ousted and a presidential election held within 60 days.
But any split in the Saenuri Party would drastically reduce its chances in such a poll.
More than 30 Saenuri lawmakers who have been at odds with Ms Park have vowed to leave, arguing that the party's current leadership refuses to embrace reforms despite the corruption scandal and impeachment crisis.
"We've reached a conclusion that conservatives' reform through the Saenuri Party is impossible", prominent lawmaker Yoo Seung Min told journalists.
A split would also complicate any potential presidential run by outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who has been widely expected to compete on the Saenuri ticket.
Thirty-five lawmakers have agreed to break away from the party on Dec 27, the dissident group said, adding they will try to persuade more legislators to join them.
Their departure will leave the party with some 90 lawmakers in the 300-seat parliament, relegating it to second place behind the left-leaning Democratic Party.
The group crossed party lines to join opposition parties in passing the motion to impeach Ms Park.
She is accused of colluding with her confidante Choi Soon Sil to coerce large companies like Samsung into handing over tens of millions of dollars to two dubious foundations which Choi allegedly controlled and plundered.
Ms Park is also accused of ordering aides to leak state documents to Choi, who has no official title or security clearance, and allowing her to meddle in state affairs including the appointment of top officials.
Investigators on Wednesday raided the state-run National Pension Service in a widening probe into the scandal.
A special prosecutor has been investigating whether Samsung bribed Choi to win state approval for a controversial merger of two of its units last year.
Investigators also said they had sought an arrest warrant for Choi's daughter Jeong Yu Ra, who is now in Europe.
Samsung, on top of a huge sum it gave to Choi's foundations, allegedly transferred millions more dollars to a Choi paper company in Germany under the pretext of supporting Ms Jeong's equestrian training.
The merger of Samsung units Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T last year was seen as a crucial step to ensure a smooth father-to-son power transfer to Mr Lee Jae Yong, scion of Samsung's founding family.
It was criticised by many who said it wilfully undervalued Samsung C&T shares. But the National Pension Service (NPS) - a major Samsung shareholder - voted in favour of the deal, which eventually went through.
The NPS oversees 543 trillion won (S$655 billion) in funds, making it the world's third largest public pension fund.
Its offices were raided last month by different prosecutors, who also searched Samsung Group offices.
The special prosecutor has taken over the case against Choi from state prosecutors.
Choi has been formally charged with abuse of power and extortion.