Critics blast democratic erosion under Taiwan's Ma
January 4, 2009
Peter Enav, Associated Press
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is a Harvard Law School graduate with a professed commitment to the rule of law.
But two incidents during his first seven months in office are prompting unflattering comparisons with his Nationalist Party's dictatorial past and raising questions about Ma's ability to protect Taiwan's fragile democracy.
His apparent willingness to countenance his party's actions against opposition politicians is provoking stinging criticism of his administration, both at home and abroad.
It is "reminiscent of Richard Nixon's behavior, as in ordering IRS investigations of groups he didn't like," said June Teufel Dreyer, a China-Taiwan expert at the University of Miami, in an e-mail response to questions. The IRS is the American tax agency.
No one suggests Ma wants to turn the clock back on free elections and other democratic reforms that swept the island starting in the mid-1980s.
What worries some is the efforts by Nationalist lawmakers to pressure the Ministry of Justice into prosecuting former officials of the rival Democratic Progressive Party, including former President Chen Shui-bian.
Chen was indicted on Dec. 12 on charges of money laundering, looting a special presidential fund and taking bribes during his eight years in office.
Few deny that there is probably substance to the allegations. The problem, the critics contend, is that Ma has failed to stop a campaign by lawmakers to keep Chen in jail pending trial.
Following his indictment, a three-judge panel from the Taipei District Court ordered him released on his own recognizance. Lead judge Chou Chan-chun said it was unlikely that Chen would attempt to flee before his trial.
Prosecutors initially accepted the decision but, following intense criticism from Nationalist lawmakers, they changed their mind and filed an appeal. On Dec. 18, the court rejected the appeal.
This provoked a new round of attacks led by Nationalist lawmaker Chiu Yi, who spent eight months in prison for leading violent protests against Chen's narrow re-election victory in 2004. "If Chou knows about shame, he should resign and let others handle the case," Chiu told reporters. "If he doesn't do so ... I will impeach him so that he loses his job."
On Dec. 25 the District Court took the unusual step of shifting Chen's case to a different three-judge panel, giving the lead role to Tsai Shou-hsun, who had acquitted Ma on graft charges of his own in 2007.
Three days later, the new panel accepted the prosecution's argument that Chen was a flight risk and ordered him back to jail.
"The pressure from critics has been undisguised," The Apple Daily newspaper said in an editorial. "If a judge does not hand out a verdict according to their wishes, they ... besmirch his reputation. The judiciary should avoid considering political elements in a case."
Ma spokesman Wang Yu-chi denied any political intervention in Chen's case. Taipei District Court spokesman Huang Chun-ming said the decision to change judges was for efficiency, so that the same panel would handle the cases of both Chen and his wife, who also faces graft charges.
Typically, though, his wife's case would have been moved to the judges hearing his case, since hers is a less important one.
Political scientist Wang Yeh-lih of Taipei's National Taiwan University said the most disturbing aspect of the Chen affair has been the readiness of Nationalist lawmakers to leak information from the investigation to allies in the media. He also blamed prosecutors, saying they "consistently violated the principle of guarding the details of investigations during Chen's case."
Wang said Ma's apparent inability to stand up to lawmakers in his own party was also evident in his reluctance to prevent senior Nationalist officials from holding talks in Shanghai last month with China's Communist Party.
The negotiations, on two-way investment and cooperation in financial and service industries, circumvented the Straits Exchange Foundation, the Taiwanese body established to conduct talks with the mainland.
The leaders of the Nationalist delegation included honorary party chairman Lien Chan, whom critics chide as a supporter of reunification with the mainland, something most Taiwanese oppose. Ma has pledged not to discuss the issue while in office.
Wang said the meeting signaled the government's willingness to abdicate its authority to the ruling political party _ much as the Nationalist Party dictated policy during martial law from 1947 to 1987.
Wang Yu-chi, the Ma spokesman, said any agreements reached with the mainland would need government approval. "The only agency recognized by the government to hold talks with China is the Straits Exchange Foundation," he said. "Non-governmental talks will not bring about the implementation of deals that are agreed upon."
But Wang Yeh-lih, the political scientist, has his doubts. "The Nationalists are circumventing public supervision when they talk to the communists on its own," he said. "This is not something a democratic country would normally tolerate."