South Korean president faces four choices

Updated 16 Nov 2016

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SOUTH Korea’s beleaguered President Park Geun-hye.
SOUTH Korea’s beleaguered President Park Geun-hye.

SEOUL: In the face of immense public pressure to resign over a series of corruption scandals involving her close aides, President Park Geun-hye claimed to be considering all possible options to break through the current political deadlock.

But given the ever-worsening voter sentiment and political pressure, the scandal-ridden state chief’s action plan comes down to four choices — voluntary resignation, partial renunciation of power, impeachment or maintaining the status quo despite all odds.

None of Park’s stopgap actions so far — including two public apologies, a shake-up of the cabinet and the presidential secretariat, and her consent to let the legislature select a prime minister — have come anywhere close to satisfying the vexed public.

Status quo

Despite all odds, there are speculations that Park will continue to lie low in hopes of a possible rebound in public sentiment, especially among those once loyal to her.

Lending credence to such a scenario is the fact that the president has mostly remained silent throughout the entire scandal over her associate Choi Soon-sil, ever since related reports first came to light in late October.

Even when the prosecutorial investigation came up with circumstantial evidence seemingly indicating Park’s involvement in Choi’s extensive corruption and influence-peddling, the presidential office refrained from remarks.

“It is inappropriate to comment on a case which is under prosecutorial probe,” presidential spokesperson Jung Youn-kuk repeated every day in answer to reporters’ questions.

The president, meanwhile, mostly remained secluded from public view, only attending pre-set diplomatic events.

It was amid such a standoff that a record-breaking candlelight vigil was held Saturday in central Seoul and throughout the country, gathering over 1 million protesters but not quite drawing a tangible response from the Blue House.

“The president has heard the people’s voices with a heavy heart and is aware of the graveness of the situation,” were the solemn yet only words coming from the presidential spokesperson in the wake of the rally.

Significant renunciation of power

The core idea is to hand over the president’s authority on key state affairs to an incoming prime minister and establish a powerful cabinet to effectively replace the presidential office.

Suggested as a compromise solution to shoving Park out of power while also preventing greater political confusion, the plan was put forward by the main opposition camp, which has been hesitant to call for the president’s immediate ouster.

Park appears to have this plan in mind, having asked the opposition to field a new prime minister.

Doubts, however, persist that Park may continue to remain the effective president, especially as she has so far refrained from clearly defining the intensified role of an incoming prime minister.

Sceptics have also pointed out that a fill-in prime minister would not be able to exert actual power on state affairs, which would eventually lead to a power vacuum — a situation no better than the possible political upheaval caused by impeachment, or even an earlier-than-expected presidential election.

Another challenge is that the selection of a new prime minister is still up in the air. With her earlier appointment of Kim Byong-joon thwarted by the opposition, Park proposed that rival parties recommend an alternative candidate, an idea unlikely to pick up momentum due to the ongoing partisan divide.

Impeachment

Impeachment, the official sanction which the legislature is entitled to impose upon the state chief, has so far been shelved due to risks of backfiring.

Based on Clause 65 of the constitution, the National Assembly may vote on a motion of impeachment, if the president has breached the constitution or other laws. Once the motion obtains the legislature’s approval, its final effectuation is to be decided by the Constitutional Court.

Some opposition figures, mostly those from the People’s Party, have claimed that such a forceful procedure has now become inevitable given the president’s apparent refusal to step down.

But it was former Saenuri Chairman Rep Kim Moo-sung who rekindled talks of impeachment on Sunday, becoming the first ruling party official to call for the legal penalty upon the president.

The ruling party bigwig’s move gave momentum to the stalled impeachment gesture, as the opposition camp, despite its parliamentary majority, would need some dozens of extra votes in order to pass the motion.

The three opposition parties together hold 165 seats on the floor, short of a quorum of 200, which is two-thirds of the 300-seat Assembly.

But ironically, as binding as the impeachment may be, this may be a less harmful solution for Park, considering the precedent of the late President Roh Moo-hyun.

The then-opposition conservative party had motioned for the impeachment of the liberal president in 2004, but soon was hit by political backfire as the Constitutional Court dismissed the motion.

It is, in fact, the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea that is refraining from suggesting impeachment, as it claims the months-long procedure would only buy more time for the distressed president and ruling party.

Voluntary resignation

Differentiating themselves from the main opposition, the two minority opposition parties — the runner-up People’s Party and progressive Justice Party — assert that immediate resignation is the only acceptable response from a president who has utterly lost the nation’s trust.

If Park decides to resign, though the choice seems unlikely, the Constitution states that a by-election be held within 60 days to elect a successor, who would take office not for the remaining of the predecessor’s term, but for a full five-year term. Until then, the prime minister would fill in.

The only plausible reason Park may resort to this scenario — and become the nation’s first democratically elected president to step down mid-term — is that she has already reached a political dead end, only facing harsher consequences otherwise.

The president’s approval rating, since recording a record-low of five per cent on Nov 4, still remained in the 5-11 per cent range as of Monday, depending on the pollster.

This unseen near zero public support, combined with a series of massive protests held each weekend, has already posed critical challenges for the president’s state operations.

It has, however, been the consistent stance of the Blue House that a state leadership vacuum would only further intensify the current political chaos, as well as increase risks on the nation’s economy.

Park’s resignation has also been shunned by the ruling conservative Saenuri Party, which has no leading presidential hopeful other than UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose affiliation with the party remains speculative.

—The Korea Herald

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2016