Corruption Scandal at Top Tests Taiwan’s Democracy
|By Jim Yardley
Published: November 18, 2006
TAIPEI, Taiwan, Nov. 18 — At times, Taiwanese politics is a blend of opera and blood sport, and this is one of those times. Scandal and outrage, lying and humiliation — all of it messy and delivered in a loud, public fashion — are consuming political life here, as a virtual death watch has settled over the second term of President Chen Shui-bian.
Mr. Chen, who once aspired to be Taiwan’s George Washington, is now accused of being its Boss Tweed. Prosecutors have implicated him in a fake receipts scandal and are planning to put his wife on trial next month. The rival Nationalist Party, salivating over Mr. Chen’s troubles, is facing its own scandal, as prosecutors say they are investigating the party’s presumptive 2008 presidential candidate for his own fake receipts.
Taiwan’s partisan newspapers have been filled with so many suggestive details — a reportedly ill-gotten Tiffany diamond ring, to name one — that the noise and acrimony have obscured the more elemental issue that the island’s young democracy is being severely tested.
“In 10 years, when we look back, this could be a turning point for Taiwan’s democracy to become mature,” said Emile C. J. Sheng, a political science professor at Soochow University. “Right now, it is a disgrace, and it is quite humiliating. But once we get past this, I think Taiwan’s politics will get a lot cleaner.”
Politically, Taiwan’s symbolic power has always been as a democratic counterpoint to China. But democracy in Taiwan remains a work in progress that has been repeatedly challenged during Mr. Chen’s tenure. The pivotal recent event occurred Nov. 3 when a prosecutor in Taipei, the capital, indicted the first lady and also announced that Mr. Chen, immune from prosecution as president, could face charges after he left office. For a judicial branch regarded as a weak constitutional pillar, it was a historic moment.
“This is very hard evidence that at last we have a fair and independent-minded judicial branch,” said Hwang Yih-jiau, an opposition legislator with the People First Party and a critic of the president. “The principle of separation of power has taken root in Taiwan.”
Equally important, many analysts say the intense news media and prosecutorial focus on government accounts, and on how elected officials use them, has set a precedent that will bring more sunshine into the system. “I think members of future first families will be a lot more careful,” said Chao Chien-min, a political analyst at a Taipei research institute.
[For the immediate future, though, Taiwan’s political scene will remain in turmoil. On Friday, the “pan blue” camp, made up of lawmakers from the Nationalist Party and the People First Party, tried to pass a motion for a nationwide recall referendum against the president. The bill failed to get the required two-thirds majority because lawmakers from Mr. Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party remained unified behind him.]
Mayoral races on Dec. 7 in Taiwan’s two largest cities, Taipei and Kaohsiung, will serve as barometers of the public mood toward Mr. Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party.
Then there is the corruption trial of the first lady, Wu Shu-chen, to begin Dec. 15. Mr. Chen has said he will leave office if his wife is convicted. Her trial will focus on the roughly $424,000 the couple collected from an executive “state affairs” fund.
To get the money, they submitted personal receipts gathered from friends and family. Mr. Chen has admitted initially lying to prosecutors about the receipts. But he has since explained on live television that the receipts were a bookkeeping necessity that enabled him to use state money for secret diplomacy — for which there are no receipts.
His defenders note that before Mr. Chen took office in 2000, presidents were not required to submit receipts to use such discretionary funds. They say prosecutors presented no evidence that Mr. Chen had used any of the money for personal gain. They also say Taiwan’s unique international isolation, defined by its tense coexistence with China, makes confidentiality essential when a president wants to engage in diplomacy.
“Only the Taiwanese people and politicians can understand the importance of keeping things completely confidential,” said Hsiao Bi-khim, a Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker who is an ally of Mr. Chen.
His critics, though, say the receipts scandal is just the latest example of what they describe as a pattern of corruption by the first family. This summer, prosecutors charged Mr. Chen’s son-in-law with insider trading in a case that is still pending. The first lady has already been investigated — and cleared of any wrongdoing — after she received gift certificates from a department store seeking government approval for a change of ownership.
With so much baggage, Mr. Chen’s secret diplomacy explanation in the receipts scandal has rung hollow to critics and much of the public. Polls place the president’s approval ratings at record lows.
The scandal has also focused public attention on Mr. Chen’s marriage, as several lawmakers have questioned the scruples of the first lady. She grew up as a doctor’s daughter while Mr. Chen was dirt poor. Early in Mr. Chen’s political career, Ms. Wu was paralyzed after being struck by a car during a political rally. The police ruled it an accident, but many people in the Democratic Progressive Party believe that it was an assassination attempt against Mr. Chen.
As first lady, Ms. Wu has attracted whispers for her penchant for luxury. One of the receipts in the scandal was for a Tiffany diamond ring valued at more than $30,000. Newspapers have reported that a Taiwanese sea cargo company had originally given jeweled watches to Mr. Chen’s son for his wedding. But the family had returned the watches for a ring reportedly fitted for Ms. Wu.
Elected officials are allowed to accept gifts in Taiwan, but the ring has angered some of Mr. Chen’s allies because the sea cargo company had business with the state. “It’s a political question, it’s a moral question, but it’s not a legal question,” Ms. Hsiao said. “We think it was very poor political judgment to take this kind of gift or live a lifestyle like that.”
Public revulsion over the different scandals peaked late this summer when a former chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party organized enormous demonstrations in Taipei calling for Mr. Chen’s resignation. At one level, the protests represented democratic free speech. But some here worried that they might overwhelm Taiwan’s democratic institutions, the way similar protests prompted the recent “soft coup” in Thailand or have toppled presidents in the Philippines.
“We worried that if the demonstrations succeeded it would not be good for Taiwan’s democracy,” said Antonio Chiang, a former member of Mr. Chen’s government who had been a dissident in Taiwan’s pre-democracy era. “It would be like Thailand. But when the indictment came out, suddenly all these demonstrations went silent.”
Mr. Chiang added: “Democracy without rule of law is very dangerous. Now, we are going to have rule of law.”
Mr. Chen’s election in 2000 was historic because it ended more than five decades of rule by the Nationalist Party. But many analysts say that many democratic values have not fully taken hold, and also blame the rival political camps for taking a zero-sum attitude toward politics and governing.
The Nationalists never seemed to accept Mr. Chen’s legitimacy as president, political observers say, even as the Democratic Progressive Party, or D.P.P., remained deeply distrustful of its rivals. Political analysts say that Mr. Chen exacerbated this poisonous partisanship with his different political efforts to push for Taiwanese independence.
The question now is whether Mr. Chen will serve until his term ends in the spring of 2008. His party is disappointed, even disgusted, with him but has remained unified enough to fend off recall efforts. However, Mr. Chen’s support could disintegrate if his party suffers in the mayoral elections, particularly in Kaohsiung, its stronghold.
For now, the D.P.P. is pointing at the Nationalist Party’s likely 2008 presidential nominee, Ma Ying-jeou, who is also mayor of Taipei. Prosecutors are investigating whether Mr. Ma also wrongly submitted false receipts for public money. Mr. Ma has claimed his innocence and described the irregularity as an error by a clerk.
One way that some Taiwanese have reassured themselves is to note that none of this — a public demonstration against a president, an indictment against the first family — could have happened across the strait in nondemocratic China. Indeed, that point has been made by a handful of bloggers in China who have watched Taiwan’s democratic convulsions not with disgust but with admiration.
Mr. Chiang, the former dissident, agreed but said Taiwan still had work to do. “We still have a lot to learn,” he said. “Democracy is not so easy.”