South Korean lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Friday to impeach President Park Geun-hye over an influence-peddling scandal, setting the stage for her to become the country’s first elected leader to be pushed from office in disgrace.
Members of parliament voted by a higher-than-expected 234 in favor and 56 opposed in the secret ballot, meaning more than 60 of Park’s own conservative Saenuri Party members backed the motion to remove her. The votes of least 200 members of the 300-seat chamber were needed for the motion to pass.
The Constitutional Court must decide whether to uphold the motion, a process that could take up to 180 days. Under the constitution, Park’s duties will be assumed by Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn on an interim basis until the court rules.
“I solemnly accept the voice of the parliament and the people and sincerely hope this confusion is soundly resolved,” Park said at a meeting with her cabinet.
“I will be responding calmly under the procedures laid out in the constitution and the law to the impeachment review by the Constitutional Court and the investigation by the special prosecutor.”
Park, who faces investigation by a special prosecutor, said this week she would wait for the Constitutional Court’s ruling, resisting demands that she step down immediately.
Cheers erupted outside the chamber of the domed parliament building when the vote was announced. People held signs saying “Victory for the People” and “New Republic of Korea”.
Earlier, anti-Park activists scuffled with police as they tried to drive two tractors up to parliament’s main gate, where more than a 1,000 protesters had congregated.
Choi Jung-hoon, a 46-year high school maths teacher, joined the rally outside parliament with his wife and daughters, age 7 and 18 months.
“I wanted my kids to be here, making history, at a historic moment, and show we people can win,” he said.
Park, 64, is accused of colluding with a friend and a former aide, both of whom have been indicted by prosecutors, to pressure big businesses to donate to two foundations set up to back her policy initiatives.
Park, who is serving a single five-year term that was set to end in February 2018, has denied wrongdoing but apologized for carelessness in her ties with her friend, Choi Soon-sil.
Mass rallies have been held in the capital, Seoul, every Saturday for the past six weeks to press her to quit. Opinion polls show overwhelming public support for her impeachment.
Kang Dong-wan, a professor at Dong-A University in Busan, said the large impeachment vote from Park’s own party was probably a result of rising crowds at weekly demonstrations demanding Park’s ouster.
“It looks like more from the ruling Saenuri Party gave their support than many had expected after realizing that the party could collapse if the bill doesn’t get approved,” Kang said.
Prime Minister Hwang, whose post is largely ceremonial, will assume interim presidential powers while the court deliberates.
He takes the helm at a time of heightened tension with North Korea, and said after the vote that the chances of a provocation by Pyongyang were high. Various agencies, including the Finance Ministry and financial regulators, planned emergency meetings later on Friday.
South Korea’s economic outlook is also worsening, in part because of the internal political uncertainty, as well as worry about the impact of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s policies on trade and foreign affairs.
PRESIDENTIAL IMMUNITY – FOR NOW
The daughter of a military ruler who led the country for 18 years before being assassinated by his disgruntled spy chief in 1979, Park would lose presidential immunity if she left office early, and could be prosecuted for abuse of power and bribery, among other charges.
A poll released on Friday showed her approval rating at 5 percent, a slight improvement from a record low 4 percent.
The survey by Gallup Korea – which is not affiliated with U.S.-based Gallup Inc – showed 81 percent of respondents supported impeachment.
The Constitutional Court will determine whether parliament followed due process and whether there were sufficient grounds for impeachment. Arguments from the two sides will be heard in public hearings.
The nine-member Constitutional Court is considered conservative in its make-up, but some of its former judges have said the case against Park is strong and was likely to be approved.
In 2004, parliament impeached then-president Roh Moo-hyun, suspending his powers for 63 days while the court reviewed the decision, which it overturned.
The most-searched items on leading web portal Naver on Friday were related to what happened in 2004. Unlike now, on that occasion public opinion was against Roh’s impeachment.
The prime minister at the time, Goh Kun, said in a 2013 memoir that he had decided to stay “low-key” while he held the reins of power.
“Even if his duty was suspended, President Roh was staying at the Blue House residence. There was no need to create unnecessary tension,” Goh wrote.