South Korean leader Park Geun-hye became the country’s first president to be ousted by impeachment after a panel of justices on Friday upheld a motion to dismiss her over one of the nation’s biggest influence-peddling scandals.
In a decision televised live from the main court room, the Constitutional Court — an independent body specializing in matters of the constitution — accepted the impeachment motion passed in parliament last year, meaning Park is now removed from office effective immediately.
“She will leave office in disgrace, which is a historic moment as that’s never happened in democratic South Korea,” said Stephen Noerper, senior vice president of The Korea Society.
Friday’s ruling now triggers a round of special elections to replace Park within the next 60 days. Presidential hopefuls, among which Moon Jae-in from the left-of-center Democratic Party of Korea leads in popularity, now await the election date, rumored to be May 9, according to local media.
Faced with allegations that included bribery and violation of sovereignty, Park was accused of colluding with Choi to secure millions of dollars in bribes from the country’s biggest enterprises and allowing Choi, a civilian, to interfere in state affairs. Park had apologized, but denied any wrongdoing.
All of the Court’s eight justices voted to uphold the motion; approval from at least six judges was needed for the motion to pass.
“The unanimity was probably intended to cool passions. Since most of the justices were chosen by Park or former President Lee Myung-bak, unanimity means they can’t be accused of playing politics,” said Justin Hastings, senior lecturer at the University of Sydney.
South Koreans took to the streets following Friday’s ruling, but financial markets showed little reaction.
The last South Korean leader to face impeachment was President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004, but the Constitutional Court had rejected the motion.
Unlike Roh’s case however, public opinion played a key role in Park’s dismissal. A Gallup Korea poll conducted last week revealed 77 percent of respondents were in favor of impeachment, placing a heavy burden on the Court to cater to public demand, according to strategists.
Since news of the scandal emerged in October, Asia’s fourth-largest economy has been rocked by mass street demonstrations as citizens demanded Park’s resignation.
The fact that judges were required to disclose their individual votes, unlike previous cases, also heightened the pressure on each justice, said Sean King, senior vice president of Park Strategies.
The Court’s eight justices had reflected on the case on a near daily basis since their final hearing on Feb. 27, Yonhap News reported, and several analysts had warned of prolonged social unrest if the motion had been rejected.
“The Court is tasked with judging cases on their merits, but it is a politicized institution. Justices who reject the motion would face fierce criticism and public ire, and they know that,” said Scott Seaman, Asia director at Eurasia Group, in a recent note.
Park, whose powers were suspended since December, was named as Choi’s accomplice in the case but she remained immune from prosecution as a sitting president. Following Friday’s decision however, that’s no longer the case.
Time for change
Years of scandal-hit governments have left many South Koreans disillusioned with political leadership.
In 2015, construction tycoon Sung Wan-jong killed himself and left a note implicating several politicians within the President’s ruling Saenuri Party of corruption, including former Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo and ex-chief of staff Lee Byung-kee.
Asia’s fourth-largest economy ranked 52nd out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s 2016 corruption index, with the organization warning that graft at the highest levels of government and business remained a critical issue.
It’s now hoped that Park’s impeachment will pave the road for a more transparent administration ahead, one that will look to implement tougher anti-graft laws on Korea Inc. as the boss of the country’s largest business enterprise undergoes trial.
As South Korea now braces for elections, optimism is high for the next administration to implement structural reforms needed for higher economic growth, including loosening the labor market to reduce youth unemployment, that were thwarted during the months-long political malaise.
“Only a new mandate from the South Korean people and the energy of a new administration empowered to implement the political will of the people will enable South Korea to overcome its current problems,” said Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council of Foreign Relations.
While Friday’s impeachment ruling is a milestone for South Korean politics, it may bring about more near-term instability, especially at a time of regional geopolitical risks.
“South Korea is entering a political vacuum at a time when tensions with North Korea have escalated to crisis point, and when relations with China have also become tense,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit, referring to North Korea’s latest missile launches and Chinese economic sanctions.
“The impeachment decision does clear the ground for new political leadership, but South Korea’s future foreign policy under the next president will now become an unknown factor for the near-term,” Biswas continued.