South Korea's ruling conservative party officially split Tuesday over the impeachment of scandal-hit President Park Geun-Hye, threatening to complicate presidential elections that could be held as soon as March.
A group of 29 lawmakers left the ruling Saenuri Party, arguing that its leadership refuses to embrace reforms despite the political crisis fuelled by the corruption scandal that has engulfed Park.
Their departure left the party with 99 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly, relegating it to second place behind the liberal Democratic Party.
In a statement, they accused the ruling party of defending Park, branding her as the "worst-ever" offender against constitutional order.
"Our departure will provide momentum to turn the country's tragic incident -- the impeachment of its president -- into chances for the development of democracy", the dissident group said.
More than 60 Saenuri lawmakers crossed party lines to join opposition parties in passing a motion to impeach Park this month.
The case is now being considered by the constitutional court, which has up to 180 days to rule on the validity of the impeachment that charged Park with multiple criminal and constitutional violations -- ranging from bribery to abuse of power.
The next presidential election is slated for December 2017, but if justices confirm impeachment, Park will be permanently removed and elections must be held within 60 days -- meaning a ballot could be held as early as late March.
The Saenuri Party split could be problematic for one frontrunner -- outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
He had been widely expected to compete as a centre-right candidate on the Saenuri ticket but is now without an obvious platform to launch and run his campaign.
The 72-year-old last week strongly hinted he will jump into the presidential race, saying he was willing to devote himself to developing South Korea.
An opinion poll last week showed Ban was neck and neck with Democratic Party hopeful Moon Jae-In, each with a 23 percent support.
It remains unclear whether Ban will join the Saenuri Party or the emerging conservative party.
Park is accused of colluding with her friend Choi Soon-Sil to strong-arm large companies like Samsung into handing over tens of millions of dollars to two dubious foundations Choi allegedly controlled and plundered.
Park also allegedly ordered aides to leak state documents to Choi, who has no official title or security clearance, allowing her to meddle in some state affairs including the appointment of top officials.
Choi, who is said to have had a "Rasputin-like" influence over the president, has denied all charges against her.
29 lawmakers quit South Korean President's party amid scandal
|The impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has caused a split in the ruling Saenuri Party, making it the second largest parliamentary party ©JEON HEON-KYUN (POOL/AFP/File)|
The blow comes days after Park was impeached for sharing official state documents with Choi Soon-sil, a confidante of the President who has been described as a Rasputin-like figure.
Twenty-nine lawmakers said Tuesday that they planned to quit Park's ruling Saenuri Party, which held 128 of the 300 seats in Parliament before the announcement.
"Those who remain loyal to President Park within Saenuri Party have forgotten about the true value of being conservative and, in result, lost the faith of the people," said Member of Parliament Choung Byoung-gug at a news conference announcing the new party.
Choi goes to court
Choi had her first court appearance on December 19. She's been charged with abuse of power, coercion, attempted coercion and fraud.
Her lawyers have denied the charges.
Choi is the daughter Choi Tae-min, a controversial figure who led a religious movement that started in the 1970s, anointing himself a modern day Buddha.
The elder Choi first became close with Park following the death of her mother at the hands of a North Korean assassin in 1974, while Park's father, dictator Park Chung-hee, was president (he was assassinated by his own intelligence chief.)
Allegations surfaced about the younger Choi's improper access after an abandoned computer believed to be Choi's, and containing secret documents, was found by CNN-affiliate JTBC.
South Korean Lawmakers Want Ban Ki-Moon To Run For President
South Korean lawmakers defecting from the ruling Saenuri Party said Tuesday they would soon launch a new political party and hoped the outgoing United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would join them. The lawmakers are hoping Ban would agree to run for president as part of their new party.
The Saenuri Party is embroiled in a political controversy — South Korea’s biggest in recent years — with President Park Geun-hye, a member of the ruling party, at the center of a corruption scandal that led to a parliamentary impeachment vote against her earlier in December.
Twenty-nine lawmakers, who will join the new party, also voted in favor of Park’s impeachment.
“We are hoping Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will join the New Conservative Party for Reform, and if he joins, it will be right that he would compete in a fair primary,” Yoo Seong-min, a member of the new party and a possible presidential candidate, reportedly said using the party’s tentative name.
Park, who is still president in name, allegedly allowed her friend Choi Soon-sil to meddle in government affairs. Choi allegedly influenced Park’s decisions and used her ties to the president to amass profits. Both Park and Choi have denied any wrongdoing.
The nation’s Constitutional Court said Tuesday official hearings regarding the impeachment of Park would begin next week. Following the parliament’s Dec. 9 vote, the court has up to six months to either dismiss the charges against Park and reinstate her as president or fall in line with the parliament’s decision.
If the court approves the parliament’s impeachment vote, fresh elections must be held within 60 days.
Ban has not officially announced his bid for presidency but said he would devote himself to his country after he finishes his second term as the U.N. chief. The 72-year-old served as South Korea’s minister for foreign affairs from 2004 to 2006 and will return to the country on Jan. 15, 2017.
“I will devote my whole body to work hard if what I have seen and experienced as the U.N. secretary-general helps develop the Republic of Korea,” Ban told Korean media last week. “I will decide what to do after meeting people from every walk of life after returning home.”
A new poll indicated that popular support for the U.N. chief in his home country had risen by 2.8 percent last week. Ban is currently enjoying a slim lead over other potential presidential candidates.