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S. Korean Parliament Mired in Crisis - 2004-03-10


South Korea's Parliament has become mired in a crisis provoked by opposition efforts to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun over election law violations. The president's supporters on Wednesday were camping out in the South Korean Parliament, stalling action on any legislative business. Members of the Uri Party, which supports President Roh Moo-hyun, consider the impeachment attempt an attempted coup. His aides call it "unfair and irrational."

The two biggest opposition parties, the Grand National Party and the Millennium Democratic Party submitted an impeachment motion on Tuesday. The vote could be held by Friday.

The impeachment attempt comes days after South Korea's elections commission said President Roh broke electoral laws by making comments that could sway the parliamentary election on April 15.

Even though the elections watchdog said the infraction was minor, opposition groups quickly pounced on it as an impeachment excuse. South Korea's rough-and-tumble political scene is known to be fiercely competitive and attempts to discredit or oust rivals are frequent. However, there has never been an impeachment motion made against a president.

Politics Professor Chun Hong-chan of Pusan University says Mr. Roh is unlikely to be forced from office. "I doubt it very much. First of all, the two parties will have difficulty in garnering [winning] the two-thirds of the votes necessary to make the impeachment bill pass," he says. "And, the ruling party has declared that it will do whatever it can to physically block the voting."

The controversy erupted in February when President Roh said he would do everything possible to help the Uri Party, a new group that he plans to join. The statement violated a law requiring senior officials and civil servants to be politically neutral.

Polls show most South Koreans view the offense as minor and do not think it warrants impeachment.

The 57-year-old former human rights lawyer took office a year ago, vowing to reform the political system and reduce corruption. But so far he has struggled with corruption allegations about his aides, a campaign finance scandal affecting all political parties, his country's economic woes as well as the lingering North Korean nuclear crisis.

Professor Chun, the political scientist, notes that Mr. Roh's public ratings have slipped because of these difficulties. "The approval rate for the president has been declining continuously and it hovers around 20 through 30 percent," he says. "It is unusually low."

Despite his troubles, Mr. Roh will likely complete his five-year term. Even if the impeachment motion passes, it would then go to the constitutional court, where six of the court's nine judges would have to back it.

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