New York Times


International News

Taiwan Opposition Leader Faces Corruption Charges

By Joseph Kahn
Published: 13 February 2007

BEIJING, Feb. 13 ó Corruption charges were filed today against Ma Ying-jeou, the leader of Taiwanís main opposition party who has been seen as a leading presidential candidate in 2008. The countryís high court prosecutor announced the charges.

The indictment further rattled politics in Taiwan, already beset by corruption scandals involving the wife, son-in-law of President Chen Shui-bian and several of his former aides. And it raises fresh uncertainties about how the race to succeed Mr. Chen in 2008 may affect relations with China.

The Communist government in Beijing regards Taiwan as a province of China, not an independent nation, and refuses to rule out the use of force against the island if it seeks to become formally independent. Beijing had clearly been hoping that the presidency would be won in 2008 by Mr. Maís Nationalist Party, which is inclined against formal independence.

Mr. Chenís governing style and his prolonged but inconclusive confrontation with Beijing has made him deeply unpopular in Taiwan. Mr. Ma, 56, a Harvard-educated lawyer and a popular former mayor of Taipei, has been viewed as a more pragmatic alternative, who could usher in a period of warmer economic and political ties across the Taiwan Strait.

Todayís indictment is viewed by some experts as improving the chances for Mr. Chenís beleaguered Democratic Progressive Party to hold on to the presidency in 2008, when term limits preclude Mr. Chen from running again.

The prosecutorís office announced that it had indicted Mr. Ma for misappropriating $339,000 in funds from an account he used while he was mayor of Taipei, the capital.

Mr. Ma has acknowledged that the funds were not accounted for properly, but he called the matter an inadvertent error. He has said that none of the funds were diverted for his personal use.

Mr. Ma said after the indictment that he would step down as chairman of the Nationalist Party in accordance with the partyís by-laws, but he vowed to continue to run for president. It was unclear today whether he would do so as a Nationalist or as an independent. It was also unclear whether the Nationalists would continue to support him as the partyís standard bearer.

Some analysts say that his support within the party had already been eroded by the prosecutorís corruption investigation, and by a series of political missteps as party chairman.

Even with Mr. Ma still in the race, though, Beijing has been wary of the upcoming election in Taiwan. Mainland analysts say that intensive campaigning sometimes forces candidates in Taiwanese political races to embrace independence-leaning policies. They say Beijing is determined to preempt any steps to legalize the islandís de facto separate status, even to the point of using military force.

The charges against Mr. Ma are similar to those lodged in November against Mr. Chenís wife and three of Mr. Chenís presidential aides. They were accused of skimming from a special presidential fund used to promote Taiwanís diplomatic activities overseas.

Mr. Ma called on Mr. Chen to resign as president because of those charges. But the investigation into his own handling of money, announced the same month, put Mr. Ma on the defensive, and his party did not perform as well as expected in local elections late last year.