SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea's Constitutional Court will rule Friday on whether impeached President Park Geun-hye should permanently leave office over a corruption scandal or be reinstated, a decision that could radically reshape the country's political landscape.
If the court formally unseats Park, a presidential election must be held within 60 days. For Park to be removed, at least six of the court's eight remaining justices need to support the impeachment motion filed by lawmakers, which accuses the president of a wide range of charges including extortion, bribery, abuse of power and leaking government secrets. One judge's term ended in January.
The opposition-controlled parliament voted to impeach Park in December, following weeks of massive protests over suspicions that she conspired with a longtime confidante to extort money and favors from companies and allowed the friend to secretly manipulate state affairs.
Fierce rallies by opponents and supporters of Park have divided the streets of the capital, and the court's ruling is likely to further polarize the electorate, already sharply split along generational and ideological lines.
The main opposition Democratic Party said in a statement that it will respect the ruling, whatever it is, but also that it expects the court to "make the logical decision supported by 80 percent of the people," referring to public opinion polls that show a majority of respondents back Park's impeachment.
Park's office had no comment after the court's announcement Wednesday of when it would rule. Her lawyers have vehemently denied what they call the groundless accusations against her.
Park's powers were suspended after she was impeached by parliament, and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn became government caretaker. If the court rules to remove Park, she will be stripped of her powers and lose her immunity from prosecution, making it possible for prosecutors to indict her on criminal charges. Her single five-year term was originally due to end in February 2018.
Park has apologized for putting trust in her jailed friend, Choi (pronounced Chwey) Soon-sil, but has denied any legal wrongdoing.
Investigations into the scandal have led to arrests of former government officials, top aides and businessmen, including Samsung scion Lee Jae-yong, who is suspected of bribing Park and Choi in exchange for business favors.
Park has denied prosecutors' requests for interviews and a search of her presidential office. She also refused to appear at the impeachment trial, which finished arguments on Feb. 27.
After South Korea's last presidential impeachment, of liberal President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004, the court reinstated him after two months, saying allegations of minor election law violations and incompetence weren't enough to justify his removal.
Some experts believe the court is more likely to uphold Park's impeachment because the charges against her are more serious.
If she is forced from office and an election is triggered, the Democratic Party's Moon Jae-in, who lost the 2012 race to Park, is favored in opinion polls to become South Korea's next leader.