By Aruna Krishnan
Unknown outcome of Park Geun-hye’s impeachment will produce status-quo results
When Park Geun-hye assumed office as South Korea’s first woman President in early 2013 on a wave of popularity, not many could have foreseen her impeachment on corruption charges fewer than four years later. Such has been the impact of the scandal that several lawmakers from her own Saenuri Party voted in favour of the impeachment resolution brought in by the opposition in Parliament. The crisis was sparked by revelations two months ago that Ms. Park had abused her powers to help a confidante, Choi Soon-sil, extort money from companies for her foundations. Since then, the Korean media have carried stories of Ms. Choi’s access to the President’s office and her influence in decision- making. Ms. Park, the 65-year- old daughter of the late former strongman Park Chung-Hee, has been named as Choi’s accomplice who committed various heinous crimes.
The crisis was handled ineptly by Ms. Park and her aides. That was a huge mistake on her part. She never bothered to explain her position directly to the public, and did not take her party into confidence. She stayed away from the press and the opposition, perhaps hoping the crisis would blow over. But with a 4% approval rating, she soon became the most unpopular leader South Korea has had since its transition to a democracy in the late-1980s. In the wake of opposition protests attracting over one million people to Seoul, an impeachment appeared certain. South Korean Presidents are no strangers to corruption scandals. But in Ms. Park’s case, the allegation that the President was being controlled by a puppeteer seemed to have aggravated the public anger. Moreover, Ms. Park’s record in office was far from exemplary. The economy continued to sputter under her rule with growth rate falling to 2.6% in 2015, the slowest since 2012. Her decision to reach an agreement with the United
States to deploy an advanced missile system to counter threats from North Korea was not popular domestically, and also increased tensions in the Korean Peninsula. Relations with China also steadily deteriorated under Ms. Park. South Korea needs a clear- headed leadership both to reboot the economy, and to take strategic decisions with a long- term perspective. And given the bitterness and administrative paralysis of the past couple of months, it needs someone at the helm who is free of scandal and has popular support. Unfortunately, the impeachment has pushed South Korea into a protracted interregnum— the Constitutional Court can take up to six months to decide if Ms. Park has to go or whether her powers can be restored. Ms. Park could have avoided pushing the country into this period of uncertainty had she resigned before the parliamentary vote. But she chose to cling on, leaving lawmakers with no option but to trigger the impeachment process.
Any revolution is sparked with something along the lines of Marie Antonitette’s callous comment, “Let them eat cake!” Here, Ms. Park’s silence and disregard for the constitutional laws caught her off guard. Should the Constitutional Court uphold parliament’s impeachment of Ms. Park, South Korea would hold an election within 60 days of the ruling. The Ministry of Interior as of announced that May 9 had been chosen as the date for the next election. Until then, the Blue House will have deputy Prime Minister head over the state. Moon Jae-in, a liberal opposition leader who lost the 2012 presidential election to Park, is the favourite to be the country’s next leader in opinion surveys. Hwang Kyo-ahn, the prime minister and acting president, is his closest right-wing competitor, trailing with 9%. The scandal that rocked the nation has also seen the heir to electronics giant Samsung, Lee Jae-Yong, arrested and charged with bribery for offering millions of dollars to Choi in return for policy favours from Park. Park has voiced defiance over the court ruling, saying “the truth will eventually be revealed.” We do not know whether democracy, in its true sense is going to be achieved, or if the upcoming government is going to be just the same. For people in South Korea, these elections make no difference. They are used to every party that comes to power only exploit the nation. Has faith in its entirety been lost? Only time will now tell.