With a vote of 234 to 56, South Korea’s National Assembly impeached President Park Geun Hye on Dec. 9 for her role in an influence-peddling scandal that has shaken the nation. Now the country’s Constitutional Court will have up to 180 days to review the motion and either confirm or dismiss it. If the court upholds the decision, or if Park steps down during the impeachment process, South Korean law dictates that new elections must be held within 60 days.
The impeachment vote will do little to quell political instability in the country. Though more than 50 members of the ruling Saenuri Party opted to impeach Park in the anonymous vote, deep divides remain between it and the Democratic Party, South Korea’s main opposition force. The Democratic Party is also embroiled in a dispute with its smaller counterpart in the opposition, the People’s Party. One of the first decisions the National Assembly will have to make moving forward is whether Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn will continue to serve in Park’s place as the impeachment hearings proceed. The opposition has called for the installation of an alternative candidate instead, which could trigger lengthy debates in the National Assembly in the weeks ahead.
Even if the issues surrounding the interim president are resolved quickly, the impeachment comes at an inopportune time for South Korea. The country is struggling to cope with scandals and business failures among its chaebols, or conglomerates, as well as a protracted economic slump, an impending transition in U.S. politics and the ever-evolving security environment of the Asia-Pacific region. Fixing South Korea’s economic crisis will be Seoul’s top priority, but doing so would require bringing the country’s fractured legislature together. This will be no easy task, especially since no party currently holds a majority in the National Assembly, meaning any decision would require a joint effort. Moreover, policies would have to be passed as the Saenuri Party seeks new leadership — and as its rivals look ahead to potential early elections. As the minor opposition party, the People’s Party could serve as a spoiler in any attempt by the Democratic Party to work more closely with the Saenuri Party.
Meanwhile, the underlying fractures among South Korean voters will remain. Citizens have long been split along regional lines: Those from South Korea’s southwestern provinces and Seoul often back liberal parties, while the rest of the country’s electorate typically supports conservative leaders. However, the liberal parties are routinely divided between centrist (currently the Democratic Party) and extremist (currently the People’s Party) factions. In the lead-up to the recent impeachment vote, the differences in opinion among these three groups were laid bare. And though the conservative Saenuri Party is not fully united, it is likely more cohesive than the opposition coalition.
All of this points to several more months of political strife for South Korea. This will create a difficult environment for making policy decisions, colored by the ambitions of the country’s competing parties as they try to stabilize the economy and position themselves for the next election.
© STRATFOR GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE