SEOUL, South Korea >> South Korean lawmakers on Friday voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye, a stunning and swift fall for the country’s first female leader amid protests that drew millions into the streets in united fury.
Once formal documents are handed over to the presidential Blue House later Friday, Park will be stripped of her power and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn will assume leadership until the country’s Constitutional Court rules on whether Park must permanently step down.
The court has up to 180 days to decide. Park will be formally removed from office if six of the court’s nine justices support her impeachment, and the country would then hold a presidential election within 60 days.
National Assembly speaker Chung Sye-kyun said the bill on Park’s impeachment was passed by a vote of 236 for and 56 opposed, with 9 invalid votes and abstentions. That well surpassed the necessary two-thirds support in the 300-seat assembly. The opposition needed help from members of Park’s party to get the needed votes, and it got it.
Relatives of the victims from a 2014 ferry disaster that killed more than 300 and was blamed in part on government incompetence and corruption, who were in the parliament observing the vote, cheered and clapped after the outcome was announced. Most lawmakers left the hall quietly, though some could be seen taking selfies as they waited to vote.
Once called the “Queen of Elections” for her ability to pull off wins for her party, Park has been surrounded in the presidential Blue House in recent weeks by millions of South Koreans who have taken to the streets in protest. They are furious over what prosecutors say was collusion by Park with a longtime friend to extort money from companies and to give that confidante extraordinary sway over government decisions.
Her approval ratings had plunged to 4 percent, the lowest among South Korean leaders since democracy came in the late 1980s, and even elderly conservatives who once made up her political base have distanced themselves from her. An opinion survey released Thursday showed about 78 percent of respondents supported Park’s impeachment.
South Korean lawmakers last voted to impeach a president in 2004, when they accused late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun of minor election law violations and incompetence. The court restored Roh’s powers about two months later, ruling that his wrongdoings weren’t serious enough to justify his unseating.
The chances of the court reinstating Park are considered low because her charges are much graver. However, some legal experts say the court might need more than a couple of months to decide. This is because Park’s case is much more complicated than Roh’s, and because her lawyers will likely press the court not to uphold the impeachment unless the suspicions against her are proven.
Friday’s vote was a remarkable fall for Park, the daughter of slain military dictator Park Chung-hee who convincingly beat her liberal opponent in 2012. Park’s single, five-year term was originally set to end Feb. 24, 2018.
The political turmoil around Park comes after years of frustration over a leadership style that inspired comparisons to her father’s. Critics saw in Park an unwillingness to tolerate dissent as her government cracked down on press freedom, pushed to dissolve a leftist party and allowed aggressive police suppression of anti-government protests, which saw the death of an activist in 2016.
She also was heavily criticized over her government’s handling of the 2014 ferry sinking, a disaster partially blamed on official incompetence and corruption.
Park has repeatedly apologized over the public anger caused by the latest scandal, but has denied any legal wrongdoings. She attempted to avoid impeachment last month by making a conditional offer to step down if parliament comes up with a stable power-transfer plan, but the overture was dismissed by opposition lawmakers as a stalling ploy.
Talking with leaders of her conservative ruling party on Tuesday, Park said she would make “every available effort” to prepare for the court’s impeachment review.
In indicting Park’s longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, and two former presidential aides last month, state prosecutors said they believed the president was “collusively involved” in criminal activities by the suspects. Choi and the two former aides were accused of bullying large companies into providing tens of millions of dollars and favors to foundations and businesses Choi controlled, and enabling Choi to interfere with state affairs.
Park’s lawyer has called the accusations groundless and said she would only cooperate with an independent probe led by a special prosecutor.
Park first met Choi in the 1970s, around the time Park was acting as first lady after her mother was killed during a 1974 assassination attempt on her father. Choi’s father, a shadowy figure named Choi Tae-min who was a Buddhist monk, a religious cult leader and a Christian pastor at different times, emerged as Park’s mentor.
The Choi clan has long been suspected of building a fortune by using their connections with Park to extort companies and government organizations. Choi’s ex-husband is also a former close aide of Park’s.