President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment on December 9, 2016, when the South Korean legislature voted 234 to 56 (with two abstentions and seven invalid votes) to impeach the president – following consecutive weekends of large-scale protests against her – seemed nothing short of stunning. Here is an executive who has consistently weathered criticisms of her unconsultative style and recurring influence-peddling scandals to remain the Queen of Elections and assert her priorities over the opposition and even at the expense of her ruling Saenuri Party.[i] In fact, President Park was instrumental in the candidate-nomination debacle that led to departures of high-profile senior party-members and accounted in part for the Saenuri Party’s resounding defeat in the 2016 general elections. That the President managed to keep the now-minority party in government following the drubbing is instructive. Indeed, even following the President’s impeachment, Park loyalists retained leadership control of the ruling Saenuri Party (renamed since as the Liberty Korea Party); as a result, non-Park legislators and members left the party – some would say, again – to form the conservative Bareun Party. Given President Park’s apparent staying power, how did impeachment happen?
Public activism is the mainstay that underpins the resolve to bring about the President’s impeachment. The weekly protests that began in October and, at various times, exceeded two million, likely played a key role in bringing together the fractured opposition in the legislature to pull off the impeachment. It should be noted that the Park government had faced public protests previously, the most consistent being the Sewol protests to demand an independent investigative counsel for clear resolution of the tragedy in April 2014. What is different this time around is the size of the public protests: these are some of the largest protests to hit the country in 30 years, even larger than the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987.
That large public protests are part of the knockout punch on a regime is not surprising: Tucker (2007) noted that electoral fraud led citizens to overcome collective action problems and form the Colored Revolutions protests that revolutionized politics in Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, and Kyrgyzstan.[ii] What other issues galvanize public protests? My own work on anti-corruption efforts show that government corruption may have such a galvanizing effect: in particular, experiment results show that Korean citizens are willing to join others to demand government accountability for corruption, even when they suffer no losses through the corrupt actions, if expect others to pursue that course of action.[iii]
President Park’s fall from grace, then, may lie less in her susceptibility to the influences of her confidante, Choi Soo-sil, and more with her alleged role in aiding bribery and corruption from Korean conglomerates to said confidante. The President and her lawyers have been stalling and stonewalling the special investigation counsel as well as the Constitutional Court, in an effort to delay the Court’s decision. Still, the Constitutional Court has made clear that it will decide by March 10, lending to speculations that the collective protests have had an impact even on the mostly-conservative court. With the rise of popular authoritarianism across the globe, it may well be useful to uncover other issues that galvanize citizens and lead to demands for government accountability.