Impeachment day for S Korea's president

SEOUL - South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, once known as the "Queen of Elections", faced an act of attempted political regicide Friday as lawmakers gathered to vote on a motion calling for her impeachment.

Engulfed by a corruption scandal that has transfixed the nation and paralysed her administration, Park must now confront the prospect of going down as the first democratically-elected South Korean president to be kicked out of office.

If the motion is adopted, it would result in the immediate suspension of Park's substantial executive powers and their transfer to her prime minister.

She would be allowed to retain her title pending a ruling by the Constitutional Court which has up to six months to decide whether or not to ratify the impeachment and formally end her presidency.

Whichever way the vote goes, it has been a startling fall from grace for a politician who had run for the presidential Blue House as an incorruptible candidate, declaring herself beholden to nobody and "married to the nation".

The opposition-sponsored impeachment motion accuses Park of constitutional and criminal violations ranging from a failure to protect people's lives to bribery and abuse of power.

It was filed last week with the 171 signatures of all opposition and independent lawmakers - leaving it 29 short of the two-thirds majority needed to clear the 300-seat chamber.

Its passage will depend on the backing of an anti-Park faction within the Saenuri party - more than 30 MPs who have shifted position several times but now look set to back Park's ouster.

The entire opposition has threatened to resign their seats immediately if the motion is defeated.

"This impeachment is a road to salvation for the country and the people," said Chu Mi-Ae, president of the main opposition Democratic Party.

The push for impeachment has been driven by massive protests that have seen millions take to the streets of Seoul and other cities in recent weeks, demanding that political parties remove Park if she refuses to step down.

The fact that Friday's manual paper ballot is anonymous has fuelled speculation that some lawmakers who pledged a "yes" vote in line with public opinion, may in fact vote against.

"It's really hard to predict which way the vote will go," Saenuri legislator Hong Moon-Jong told MBC radio.

"It may fall slightly short of 200 or just scrape over the line," Hong said.

The scandal that has engulfed Park has focused on her friendship with long-time confidante Choi Soon-Sil.

Choi has been charged with meddling in state affairs and using her Blue House connections to force dozens of conglomerates to donate around $70 million to two foundations she controlled.

In a first for a sitting South Korean president, Park has been named a "suspect" by prosecutors investigating the case.

High-level corruption has long been a stain on South Korea's democratic credentials and the presidential Blue House is no stranger to allegations of cronyism.

Since South Korea's first free and fair election in 1987, every president has faced graft investigations after leaving office and one - Roh Moo-Hyun - committed suicide as a corruption probe closed in on his family.

Their cases often involved family members who were able to leverage links to the president in a society where political influence has traditionally had a very close and unhealthy rapport with business success.

Park, the daughter of military strongman Park Chung-Hee who led the country from 1961 to 1979, was meant to be different.

Both her parents were assassinated and, estranged from her two siblings, unmarried and childless, she promoted herself as invulnerable to nepotism.

"I have no family to look after nor children to inherit my property ... I want to devote myself to the nation and the people," she said in a speech during the 2012 presidential campaign.

The image of duty and self-sacrifice played well with the conservative base of her ruling Saenuri Party, especially older voters who saw her as a virtuous survivor of personal tragedy.

All the more shocking then were the revelations of the extraordinary influence Choi wielded over the president - from selecting her wardrobe to vetting the appointment of top officials.