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Park political scandal sees dozens of South Korean lawmakers bolt from ruling party

AP, Kyodo

Dozens of lawmakers split from South Korea’s ruling party Tuesday over the corruption scandal involving impeached President Park Geun-hye in a move that could shape presidential elections that might take place in just months.

The lawmakers who quit the ruling party are believed to have voted for the presidential impeachment motion, which was overwhelmingly passed in the National Assembly on Dec. 9.

The 29 anti-Park lawmakers who left the Saenuri Party plan to create a new conservative party that will likely try to lure outgoing United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as its presidential candidate.

There is a possibility of more lawmakers leaving Saenuri in coming weeks over rifts with Park loyalists who continue to occupy the party’s leadership.

Choung Byoung-gug, one of the lawmakers who left Saenuri, accused the loyalists of “neglecting the values of real conservatism” and “shamelessly defending the infringement of constitutional values” as they continued to support the scandal-hit president.

Among the lawmakers quitting the ruling party were Yoo Seong-min and Kim Moo-sung, the former floor leader and the former chief of the Saenuri Party.

The group’s departure shrank the number of the party’s 128 seats in the 300-member legislature to below 100. The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea has 121 seats, and the People’s Party has 38 seats.

The split came as investigators widened their inquiry into the scandal surrounding Park, who has been accused of colluding with a longtime confidante to extort money and favors from the country’s biggest companies, and to allow the friend to manipulate government affairs.

The team, led by special prosecutor Park Young-soo, plans to summon the president’s jailed friend, Choi Soon-sil, on Tuesday afternoon following their first interrogation of her Saturday.

The presidential election is scheduled for next December, but will be held earlier if the Constitutional Court approves the presidential impeachment. In that case, it must be held within 60 days of the court’s decision.

Ban is seen as the best hope for conservatives to win back the presidential Blue House after Park’s collapse complicated politics for her party. Recent opinion polls put Ban slightly ahead of liberal politician Moon Jae-in, who conceded the presidential race to Park four years ago, as the favorite to win a presidential vote.

In a recent meeting with South Korean reporters in New York, Ban said he is ready to “burn” his body in devotion for South Korea, his strongest hint yet that he will run for president.

South Korea’s opposition-controlled parliament voted Dec. 9 to impeach Park over the scandal that saw millions of people protest in recent weeks.