Tag Archives: President Park Geun-hye; impeachment; opposition in the electorate; opposition in the legislature; non-Park; pro-Park; Saenuri Party; Minjoo Party; People’s Party; popular protests

South Korea – Impeachment of the President: Critical Citizens and Political Will

On December 9, 2016, the South Korean legislature voted 234 to 56 (with two abstentions and seven invalid votes) to impeach the sitting president, Park Geun-hye. Two-thirds of the legislature – or 200 votes – is required for impeachment to succeed. The opposition and independents added to only 172 votes, so that at least 28 members of the Saenuri Party would have to cross the aisle in order for impeachment to pass. As late as December 2, 2016, it was unclear that there would be enough votes for impeachment: President Park’s offer to resign on November 29 threw a wrench in discussions between the three opposition parties, and within the Saenuri party. Yet, in a week, bolstered by the large and growing protests against the President Park, the opposition pulled together to pass the impeachment vote, the second successful impeachment of a sitting president since Korea’s democratization in 1987. The successful vote, then, offers a useful study of the opposition in the legislature, and the role of the opposition in the electorate in delivering the necessary political will.

The opposition in the legislature comprises three political parties – the main opposition Minjoo Party with 123 seats, the People’s Party with 38 seats, and the Justice Party with 6 seats – and independents; it also includes the non-Park members of the Saenuri Party. The Minjoo Party and the People’s Party had fractured from the former opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD); among the independents, some are disgruntled members of the NPAD while some are the disenfranchised members of the Saenuri Party who left following the candidate-nomination fights for general elections in April, 2016. Among the opposition, then, political hostility reigned high, so that the camaraderie that led to the fragile agreement between the three opposition parties cracked easily, such as when Minjoo Chair Choo Mi-ae attempted to broker a deal for the president’s resignation.

In the Saenuri Party, the non-Park faction had suffered a series of crippling setbacks in standoffs with the President that were generally resolved in favour of the President since 2015.[i] Indeed, even following the surprising electoral trouncing that led the ruling party to lose its majority in the legislature, the non-Park members were stymied in their efforts to build – or revive – a viable alternative to the pro-Park faction. Still, in this political crisis, non-Park members rallied to constitute 12 members of the crisis management council – it includes former chair of the Saenuri Party, Representative Kim Moo-sung, and former floor leader, Representative Yoo Seung-min – to bring party members into supporting impeachment. But, the strength of the President Park’s advocates in the party must be noted: even with the President’s impeachment, the new floor leaders of the Saenuri Party are from the pro-Park faction.

But for the united and expanding opposition in the electorate, the tenuous union of the opposition in the legislature may have crumbled in the face of further compromises from the executive. Critical citizens – citizens who question government authority or adopt unconventional participation, including protests, to influence government policies – have consistently battled to keep their concerns on the political agenda in South Korea.[2] This is no mean feat, given the discord among the opposition in the legislature, and notwithstanding concessions and compromises from the executive. Their steadfastness – hitting a record two million in weekly protests since October – buttressed the resolve of the opposition parties in the legislature, and likely convinced wavering members of the Saenuri Party to support the non-Park vote for impeachment.

Indeed, many predict that this opposition in the electorate will be critical in swaying the mostly-conservative Constitutional Court, which will have the final say in the impeachment process. Six Constitutional Court justices must support impeachment before the President is removed from office; the quorum for binding vote is seven. The Court has 180 days to decide on the impeachment; however, two of the nine justices are scheduled to retire in March 2017, which increases the odds that six of the remaining seven will vote to support impeachment. Still, the opinions of the justices will be made public; this, together with the strong public will against the President, may deliver the impeachment.

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[i] O. Fiona Yap, 2016. “South Korea in 2015: Battling to Set the Stage for Elections.” Asian Survey vol 56 no 1: 78-86

[2] See Norris, P. (2002). Democratic Phoenix. Political Activism Worldwide. New Social Movements, Protest Politics and the Internet: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Kim, S. (2010). Public trust in government in Japan and South Korea: Does the rise of critical citizens matter? Public administration review, 70(5), 801-810; Sander, T. H., & Putnam, R. D. (2010). Still bowling alone?: The post-9/11 split. Journal of Democracy, 21(1), 9-16.