After the South Korean parliament’s impeachment of President Park Geun-Hye, the spotlight now shifts to the nine judges of the Constitutional Court who could yet slam the door on those seeking to remove her from office.
The lawmakers’ vote on Friday suspended Park’s sweeping executive powers, but it requires final approval by a two-thirds majority of the court — a lengthy and uncertain process that could take up to six months.
On paper, the court might be expected to favour Park, as nine of its justices were appointed by her or her conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-Bak.
But public opinion is hugely in favour of removing Park from the presidential Blue House, with the most recent opinion polls showing support for impeachment running at around 80 percent.
So the justices will be under extreme pressure to uphold parliament’s decision, especially as the opposition-sponsored impeachment motion was adopted with the support of a significant number of lawmakers from Park’s own ruling Saenuri Party.
Park’s downfall was triggered by a scandal involving her close friend, Choi Soon-Sil, who is now awaiting trial on charges of using her presidential ties as leverage to squeeze tens of millions of dollars from local companies.
Park is also accused of leaking confidential state documents to Choi, who has no official title or security clearance, but was apparently allowed to meddle in state affairs including senior appointments.
The 40-page impeachment bill charged the president with multiple constitutional and criminal violations ranging from a failure to protect people’s lives to bribery and abuse of power.
– Decide or wait –
Many of the charges were based on the initial findings of prosecutors conducting an official investigation into the Choi scandal which will only wrap up in March or April next year.
Given that it has 180 days to reach a decision, the court could decide to wait for the investigation to conclude, but that would throw up separate procedural problems with one justice slated to retire in January and another in March.
With Park sidelined and the acting president — her prime minister — expected to keep a low profile, both seats on the bench would likely remain vacant.
That could leave the impeachment motion requiring the approval of six out of only seven justices, rather than six out of nine.
In its initial reaction to Friday’s vote, the court said it would expect Park’s legal team to submit a written response to her impeachment within a week.
“We have reached an agreement that this impeachment is an extremely significant case that requires prompt progress,” court spokesman Bae Bo-Yoon told reporters.
“The court will hold more meetings down the road considering the gravity of the issue and form a task force of researchers to examine how to approach the case,” Bae said.
Kim Jong-Dae, a former constitutional justice, suggested the court would be swayed by the wave of public anger that pushed lawmakers to introduce and pass the impeachment bill.
Millions have taken to the streets of cities across the country in a weekly series of mass protests over the past two months, calling for Park’s ouster.
– Public pressure –
“The Blue House says it takes the public opinion displayed by the candle-lit rallies very seriously. So do constitutional court judges,” Kim said in a recent radio interview.
“Public servants by nature are bound to follow public opinion,” he said, adding that the court may try to speed up its deliberations to minimise the disruption caused by the current power vacuum.
If the court confirms the impeachment, Park will be permanently dismissed with immediate effect and fresh presidential elections will have to be held within 60 days.
She is the second South Korean president to be impeached by lawmakers.
The late Roh Moo-Hyun faced the same ordeal in 2004 when lawmakers took issue with remarks he made that were seen as violating election law.
But the case never enjoyed popular support and backfired in the face of large pro-Roh rallies and an eventual decision by the court to reject the impeachment vote.
Roh Hee-Bum, a lawyer who used to be a researcher at the court, said public sentiment should not be a factor.
“Presidential impeachment is based on facts and a judgement as to whether the president committed serious enough legal offences,” Roh said.