South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday asked parliament to decide how and when she can give up power over an influence-peddling scandal, taking the country’s political crisis deeper into uncharted terrain.
The main opposition Democratic Party rejected Park’s offer, calling it a ploy to escape being impeached, and said it would continue efforts to bring an impeachment motion in parliament, which it has sought to do as soon as Friday.
No South Korean president has failed to complete a single five-year term since the current democratic system was introduced in 1987.
“I will leave to parliament everything about my future including shortening of my term,” Park said in a brief televised speech.
Her dramatic manoeuvre puts the burden of resolving the crisis, involving a close friend accused of meddling in state affairs, on parliament, which has been controlled by a coalition of opposition parties since Park’s conservative Saenuri Party unexpectedly lost its majority in April elections.
The presidential office and Park’s lawyer have denied the accusations against her. She has immunity from prosecution in the case as long as she remains in office.
If Park resigns or an impeachment vote in parliament is upheld by the Constitutional Court, an election must be held in 60 days to nominate a president to serve a five-year term, with the prime minister leading the country in the interim.
That short time frame could leave the main political parties looking to buy time in order to coalesce behind presidential candidates, and political analysts said it may take months for parliament to agree on an exit plan for Park.
“I will step down from my position according to the law once a way is formed to pass on the administration in a stable manner that will also minimise political unrest and vacuum after ruling and opposition parties’ discussion,” Park said, her voice firm.
Park Kwang-on, a Democratic Party lawmaker, said it looked like she was trying to stall proceedings.
“She is handing the ball to parliament when she could simply step down,” he told Reuters. “She is asking parliament to pick a date for her to resign, which she knows would lead to a discussion on when to hold the presidential election and delay everything.”
Park, 64, had apologised twice previously but until Tuesday resisted mounting public calls to quit. Her term is scheduled to end in February 2018.
“She doesn’t want the parliament to impeach her and she doesn’t think that the parliament can soon reach an agreement, so she is making things complicated and trying to shift some of her blame to the parliament,” said Shin Yul, a professor of political science at Myongji University.
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Some lawmakers from Park’s Saenuri party had asked her to resign under an agreement that would allow her to leave office with some dignity.
On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans rallied for the fifth weekend in a row, calling for Park’s resignation. Organisers said the crowd totalled 1.5 million, while the police estimated the crowd at 260,000.
Opposition parties canvassing for support to impeach Park need votes from her own party to secure the two-thirds majority needed to pass such a motion.
A group of several ruling party lawmakers who previously favoured impeachment said after Park’s speech that lawmakers should first try to negotiate terms of her exit before seeking impeachment, Hwang Young-cheul, one of the lawmakers, told Reuters by telephone.
Park’s approval rating fell to just 4 per cent in a weekly survey released on Friday by Gallup Korea, an all time-low for a democratically elected South Korean president.
Park’s friend, Choi Soon-sil, and a former aide have been indicted in the case. Prosecutors named Park as an accomplice in an investigation into whether big business was inappropriately pressured to contribute money to foundations set up to back Park’s initiatives.
Park has acknowledged carelessness in her ties with Choi, who Park has said had helped her through difficult times.
“Not even for a moment did I pursue my own gains and I have lived without one iota of self-interest,” Park said on Tuesday.
The friendship dates to an era when Park served as acting first lady after her mother was killed by an assassin’s bullet intended for her father, then-president Park Chung-hee. Five years later, in 1979, Park’s father was murdered by his disgruntled spy chief.