South Korean politicians yesterday impeached president Park Geun-hye, a swift fall for the country’s first female leader amid protests that drew millions into the streets in united fury.
After the vote, parliamentary officials hand-delivered formal documents to the presidential Blue House that stripped Ms Park of her power and allowed the country’s number two official, prime minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, to assume leadership until the Constitutional Court rules on whether Ms Park must permanently step down. The court has up to six months to decide.
“I’d like to say that I’m deeply sorry to the people because the nation has to experience this turmoil because of my negligence and lack of virtue at a time when our security and economy both face difficulties,” Ms Park said after the vote, before a closed-door meeting with her Cabinet where she and other aides reportedly broke down in tears.
Mr Hwang separately said that he wanted “the ruling and opposition political parties and the parliament to gather strength and wisdom so that we can return stability to the country and people as soon as possible”.
Once called the “Queen of Elections” for her ability to pull off wins for her party, Ms Park has been surrounded in the Blue House in recent weeks by millions of South Koreans who have taken to the streets in protest. They are furious over what prosecutors say was collusion by Ms Park with a long-time friend to extort money from companies and to give that confidante extraordinary sway over government decisions.
Organisers said about 10,000 people gathered in front of the National Assembly to demand that politicians pass the impeachment motion. Some had spent the night on the streets after travelling from other cities. Scuffles broke out between angry anti-Park farmers, some of whom had driven tractors to the assembly from their farms, and police. When the impeachment happened, many of those gathered raised their hands in the air and leapt about, cheering and laughing.
“Can you hear the roar of the people in front of the National Assembly?” Kim Kwan-young, an opposition politician said ahead of the vote, referring to South Korea’s formal name. “Our great people have already opened the way. Let’s make it so we can stand honourably in front of history and our descendants.”
The handover of power prompted the prime minister to order his defence minister to put the military on a state of heightened readiness to brace for any potential provocation by North Korea. No suspicious movements by the North were reported, however.
Ms Park will be formally removed from office if at least six of the Constitutional Court’s nine justices support her impeachment, and the country would hold a presidential election within 60 days.
National Assembly speaker Chung Sye-kyun said the bill on Ms Park’s impeachment was passed by a vote of 234 for and 56 opposed. That well surpassed the necessary two-thirds vote needed in the 300-seat assembly, with the opposition getting strong support from members of Ms Park’s party.
Present for the vote were relatives of the victims of a 2014 ferry disaster that killed more than 300 and was blamed in part on government incompetence and corruption; they cheered and clapped after the impeachment was announced. Most politicians left the hall quietly, though some could be seen taking selfies as they waited to vote.
Politicians from both parties faced huge pressure to act against Ms Park, the daughter of a military dictator still revered by many conservatives for lifting the country from poverty in the 1960s-70s.