September 22, 2023 11:09
The National Assembly in a surprise result on Thursday passed a motion to lift Minjoo Party leader Lee Jae-myung's immunity from arrest.
The result startled many opposition figures since the MP has a comfortable majority in parliament and reflects growing divisions within the party.
The motion means that a judge can now review a request for an arrest warrant sought by prosecutors, but the passage of the motion has already dealt a huge blow to Lee's political standing, and his party is expected to spiral into infighting.
Out of 295 lawmakers who took part in the vote, 149 supported the motion, 136 opposed it and six abstained, while four ballots were invalid. That means at least 29 opposition lawmakers must have voted in favor, 10 more than during the first motion to arrest Lee in February.
Mainstream MP lawmakers widely expected the motion to be rejected, and supporters rallied around Lee, who has been on hunger strike for 22 days over a smorgasbord of demands.
On Wednesday, Lee urged party members to vote down the motion, saying passing it would "add momentum to the investigation by politically motivated prosecutors." He had earlier promised to relinquish his immunity from arrest, and the volte-face appears to have alienated non-mainstream MP lawmakers.
One second-term MP lawmaker said the result was "a reflection of the discontent of non-mainstream party members with the chairman, who dragged the party into a quagmire just to save his own skin."
But a loyalist said, "A judge will put the brakes on the excessive investigation by prosecutors. The arrest warrant will be rejected, and the chairman will be able to return to work and overcome this crisis."
Intra-party feuding is expected to intensify. The pro-Lee faction will try to ferret out lawmakers who voted in favor of the arrest motion, while non-mainstream members will demand a new leader. A non-mainstream party member said, "Even if the arrest warrant is rejected, the party has already delivered its verdict."
The Seoul Central District Court is expected to review the arrest warrant as early as Friday, but Lee's deteriorating health and the upcoming Chuseok holiday could delay matters. "A review date will be set before the Chuseok holiday, but there is a possibility of the date being postponed if Lee's lawyers request it," a court source said.
Prosecutors applied for an arrest warrant early this week citing the gravity of the charges against Lee and the risk that he could destroy evidence. The prosecution accuses him of breach of trust by giving special treatment to a private developer in an apartment project in Seongnam, south of Seoul, between 2014 and 2015, when he was mayor of the city.
They also believe he arranged for the illegal transfer of US$8 million to North Korea in his time as Gyeonggi Province governor to facilitate abortive cross-border projects. Prosecutors believe Lee could face anywhere from 11 years to life in prison if found guilty of the charges.
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