A red traffic light at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul with the Blue House in the background
On Dec. 9, the National Assembly overwhelmingly voted the impeachment President Park Geun-hye, and upon receiving the National Assembly’s copy of the motion, her presidential powers will be suspended. The Constitutional Court must review the motion of impeachment and make a ruling on it within 180 days. But the court could very well reach a decision much sooner than that in light of the importance of the case, the urgent need to put the government back on a normal footing and the fact that Constitutional Court President Park Han-chul’s term is coming to an end on Jan. 31, 2017. The problem is that no agreement has been reached by the parties and factions supporting impeachment about what will happen after Park’s authority is suspended.
The first potential problem is whether the opposition parties will allow Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn to take over the president’s powers as acting president. The leadership of the Minjoo Party (including party leader Choo Mi-ae) have declared that they will not tolerate a caretaker government under Hwang. Their argument is that since Hwang is also partly responsible for allowing Choi Sun-sil to exploit the government for her own ends, he must not be given the president’s immense powers for any period of time. The fact that Hwang (who was then Justice Minister) blocked the prosecutors from charging suspects with violating the Public Official Election Act in an investigation into the National Intelligence Service’s interference in the 2012 presidential election is another reason why the opposition parties are unlikely to let Hwang lead a caretaker government.
Dec. 9. (by Kim Jeong-hyo
But not only the pro-Park wing of the Saenuri Party but also the non-Park wing, who have pledged to vote for Park’s impeachment, are opposed to any obstruction of a caretaker government led by Hwang. Their position is that refusing to allow the prime minister to assume Park’s presidential powers as ordained in the constitution could lead to a collapse of the constitutional order.
A considerable number of lawmakers in the People’s Party and the Minjoo Party also hold that a caretaker government under Hwang is the only practical outcome of the motion for impeachment being passed. They not only see problems with making an exception to the constitution but also are greatly concerned that forcing Hwang to step down would only increase public anxiety. For reasons such as these, the opposition parties are proposing compromises by minimizing Hwang’s powers in a caretaker government and limiting him to overseeing a political schedule agreed upon by the ruling and opposition parties or by having the next in line after Hwang (that is, the Vice Minister of Economic Affairs) lead the caretaker government in Hwang’s place.
Park’s voluntary resignation is also expected to continue to be an issue. While there are conflicting legal opinions about whether an impeached president can voluntary step down while her impeachment is being reviewed by the Constitutional Court, the leadership of the Minjoo Party intends to keep pressuring Park to step down voluntarily instead of merely waiting for the Constitutional Court’s judgment.
Minjoo Party leaders argue that the surest course of action is to eliminate any uncertainty about the Constitutional Court’s verdict (given that the court justices are overwhelming conservative), but the problem is that Park’s resignation would push forward the schedule of the next presidential election, which legally must take place within sixty days of her resignation. Since an earlier presidential election favors the popular frontrunners, there would certainly be pushback from latecomers to the race who need time to catch up. The Saenuri Party is also criticizing the plan to keep pushing Park to step down even after being impeached as a political scheme by former Minjoo Party leader Moon Jae-in, who is a strong contender in the next election.
Another possibility is that there could be a resurgence of calls for revising the constitution across the political spectrum. The dominant wing of the Minjoo Party is strongly opposed to unnecessarily dispersing its energy by bringing up other issues, such as constitutional reform, before the Constitutional Court has ruled on impeachment or before Park steps down of her own accord. Moon Jae-in, who calls the shots in the Minjoo Party, has stated that constitutional reform is an issue for presidential candidates to promise and for the next administration to carry out.
But as much as they would like to, Moon and the Minjoo Party establishment will probably not be able to keep a lid on the topic of amending the constitution. In addition to the fact that a significant number of lawmakers support constitutional reform in both the ruling party and the opposition parties, political parties that have promised to implement the public demands to change society that have been expressed in the candlelit rallies can hardly avoid the issue of amending the constitution, since it is the supreme law governing society.
The National Assembly speaker and the floor leaders of the ruling and three opposition parties have agreed to set up a special committee for constitutional reform after the regular session of the National Assembly is over, and at the moment, chances are that this committee will open the floodgates on the debate over constitutional reform. Considering that reorganizing the power structure is the key question in constitutional reform, this debate is very likely to coincide with discussion of a bipartisan political realignment. One possible scenario is a coalition between the non-Park wing of the Saenuri Party and the People’s Party.
But the fact that the presidential election must be held within 60 days of the Constitutional Court upholding the motion for impeachment is a handicap to advocates of constitutional reform. Since the various groups have contradictory views about when constitutional reform should occur and about what that reform should consist of, reaching a consensus will not be easy. For this reason, the discussion of constitutional reform is likely to take the back seat as the Constitutional Court’s verdict approaches, with the political focus rapidly shifting toward the next presidential election.
By Lee Se-young and Kim Jin-cheol, staff reporters
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