By Yoo Seungki
SEOUL, March 13 (Xinhua) -- South Korea has entered a presidential race as former President Park Geun-hye was ousted by impeachment with a constitutional court's ruling last week.
The court on Friday upheld Park's impeachment bill, which was passed in the parliament on Dec. 9. Park became the first South Korean leader to be removed from office by impeachment.
"Park's removal secured legitimacy as there were enough reasonable charges to legitimize it," Jang Seok-joon, vice president of local think tank Future Politics Center, told Xinhua on Monday.
The court said Park had allowed Choi Soon-sil, her longtime confidante with no public post, to meddle in state affairs behind the scenes and review government documents with state secrets.
Prosecutors have branded Park as a criminal accomplice of Choi for multiple charges including bribery. Park could face an investigation by prosecutors as early as this week as she lost her presidential immunity.
Park returned to her private home in southern district of Seoul on Sunday night, smilingly waving her hand to her supporters who chanted Park's name and cheered her up outside the house.
The streets of central Seoul had been divided in recent months by pro- and anti-Park rallies. The Park loyalists claimed Park is innocent and that the impeachment is unconstitutional.
Park's impeachment was powered by "candle force," said Jang, noting all of the legal proceedings against Park were constitutionally right.
A presidential by-election is required to be held within 60 days as the president is formally unseated. The most probable election date is estimated on May 9.
Before a new leader is elected to replace Park, the interim government will be handled by Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who emerged as the best hope among conservative voters as Park's political party and its members are seen as collaborators with the disgraced president.
"There is a possibility for Hwang to run for president as any remarkable presidential contender is not found from the conservative camp," said Jang who predicted Hwang's announcement of his presidential bid this week if he has willingness to run.
Hwang, however, is unlikely to be elected as next leader considering desperate hope among the majority of South Koreans for the transfer of power. His approval rating hovered at 10 to 15 percent in opinion polls as he is one of the closest aides to Park.
The conservative force is being divided as dozens of lawmakers defected from the Liberty Korea Party, Park's party, and created the Righteous Party, of which presidential hopefuls saw their support scores in the low single digit.
The winner in the primary of the biggest opposition Minjoo Party is widely forecast to win the presidency. Three main Minjoo Party contenders have garnered almost 60 percent of public support in total in recent surveys.
"Whoever is elected next leader among Minjoo Party contenders will face a strong challenge given the formation of the parliament," Jang said, expecting a bitter clash between the reformist government and the powerful parties of conservatives.
The Minjoo Party gained 121 seats in the April 2016 parliamentary elections, but the party failed to win a majority in the 300-seat National Assembly. The Liberty Korea Party still has 94 seats, while its splinter Righteous Party has 32 lawmakers.
Without cooperation from progressive or conservative opposition parties, the expected government of the Minjoo Party would have little to achieve. The People's Party and the Justice Party own 39 and 6 parliamentary seats each.
Jang said it would be extremely important for any new government to initiate the amendment of the constitution, which has never changed since 1987, as part of a strategy to maintain the reformist momentum.
He forecast there would be no big difference in policies toward the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) if any of the three Minjoo Party hopefuls is elected as president.
The three potentials include frontrunner and former Minjoo Party chief Moon Jae-in, governor of South Chungcheong province Ahn Hee-jung and mayor of Seongnam city Lee Jae-myung.
Moon and Lee have favored the reopening of the inter-Korean factory park in the DPRK's border town of Kaesong, which the Park government closed following Pyongyang's nuclear test and long-range rocket launch in early 2016.
They have supported the resumption of dialogue with the DPRK, as well as continued sanctions, to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions.
Ahn was more conservative than the two in dealing with the DPRK's nuclear and missile program, but it could be part of an election strategy to gain more support from conservative voters, Jang added.