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Another indictment on Taiwanese democracy?

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Former President Ma Ying-jeou appears in court for his political leaks controversy, in Taipei, Taiwan 10 January 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu).

In Brief

In March 2017, former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou was indicted on charges of leaking classified information in a 2013 wiretapping case. This makes Ma the third consecutive Taiwanese leader to face criminal charges after leaving office. This seemingly endemic corruption raises questions about how much progress Taiwan’s democratic consolidation has achieved.


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In July 2011 Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s first directly-elected president who guided the island’s transition from martial law to democracy, was indicted on charges of embezzling US$7.79 million from a National Security Bureau fund during his 1988–2000 tenure. The Taipei District Court acquitted Lee of all charges in 2013, but not his aide, Liu Tai-ying. Prosecutors from Taiwan’s Special Investigation Division lost a further appeal against Lee in 2014 at the Taiwan High Court due to a lack of evidence.

Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s first Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president, and his wife, Wu Shu-jen, were sentenced to life imprisonment in September 2009 for money laundering, forgery, embezzlement and taking bribes. The bribes reportedly totalled US$23 million, and some of the money was laundered overseas through Swiss bank accounts and paper companies. After several appeals, Chen’s sentence was reduced to 20 years, and a 2011 retrial further proved that funds embezzled by Chen and Wu from a state affairs fund were used for ‘secret diplomatic activities’ concerning Japan and the United States. In January 2015, Chen was released on medical parole.

The current charges against Ma relate to the handling of classified information in a 2013 criminal investigation during his second term as president. If convicted, Ma could spend at least three years in prison for breaking laws regarding the protection of personal information, release of secrets and communications security and surveillance.

The case involves a key political rival of Ma among the Kuomintang (KMT) factions, Wang Jin-pyng, who at the time was the speaker of Taiwan’s legislature. Ma allegedly illegally ordered an investigator to leak details of an unlawfully wiretapped conversation between Wang and DPP lawmaker Ker Chien-ming. Ma is also accused of obtaining this information from then chief prosecutor of the Supreme Prosecutor Office Huang Shih-ming, the very office running the Special Investigation Division. The Special Investigation Division was later abolished in November 2016 due to criticisms that its investigations were politically motivated and that it had lost public confidence.

Observers claimed the corruption charges against Lee and Chen were politically motivated. Lee, despite his KMT origins, had become an outspoken advocate for Taiwanese independence and was charged in June 2011, in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential elections. Chen, an unwavering supporter of Taiwanese sovereignty, was charged with corruption shortly after handing over his presidency in 2008. His wife was indicted in November 2006, and his children were investigated in September 2007 in the lead-up to the 2008 election.

Human rights advocates and legal experts questioned both cases, particularly Chen’s case for ‘judicial irregularity’. Similarly, many politicians view Ma’s current indictment as Pan-Green (pro-independence) revenge for the KMT prosecution of Chen, condemning the constitutional courts for becoming politicised.

Democratisation is a complex process. Once political elites make the decision to transition, those very officials then have to abide by democratic principles and the rule of law. It also involves formulating an electoral system, a constitution, a judiciary and free press that affords political opportunity to all citizens. These institutions then must undergo continual reform to accommodate changes in a country’s social cleavages.

As opposed to problems with Taiwanese democracy, the indictments of Lee, Chen, Ma and senior government officials demonstrate the ‘transitional pains’ from martial law to a democratic regime. Despite holding Taiwan’s highest political office, the three former presidents were neither above the law nor immune from prosecution. Prosecutors also did not target members of any particular political party, as each president represented a distinct position along the political spectrum, and senior government officials were also accused.

The judiciary has been acting constitutionally and without political motivation to investigate the abuse of executive powers.

Public outcry over the indictments are charged with sentiments that these leaders have debased Taiwan’s democracy to serve their own self-interest. Taiwanese citizens are becoming more concerned with good governance, the upholding of civil and political rights and the protection of Taiwan’s identity as a democracy. Taiwan has held three peaceful transitions of power through inclusive and competitive elections. This is despite the long shadow of its authoritarian one-party KMT rule, in which many senior officials continued in government and military roles after the ban on opposition parties was lifted in 1987, and the KMT still maintains institutional control over policymaking.

Consequently, despite its successes in democratisation, public confidence in Taiwan’s judicial system remains among the lowest of countries surveyed in East Asia. Repeated occurrences of these cases could spell trouble not just for Taiwanese leaders but for Taiwan as a country. In the 1970s, the KMT’s decision to transition from one-party rule to a democratic regime was motivated by both external challenges emanating from Taiwan’s diminished international recognition, and domestic pressures for increased political participation.

If four decades of gains in Taiwan’s democratic institutions continue to be undermined, Taiwan will lose its hard-earned ability to define itself as distinct from the one-party system of mainland China.

Sheryn Lee is an Associate Lecturer at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology, Macquarie University.

3 responses to “Another indictment on Taiwanese democracy?”

  1. The Ma indictment was a step forward for democracy, as I noted in a column I wrote for Taiwan news about it:

    “Is this indictment some kind of pan-Green revenge? Hardly. This case began in September of 2013. By December of that SID Chief Huang was indicted for his role in the case. For the last few years knowledgeable observers have speculated that Ma sooner or later would come under prosecutorial scrutiny for making the wiretaps public. Moreover, SID Chief Huang was investigated, indicted, and convicted when the Administration was Blue. This case did not suddenly appear under the Tsai Administration.

    Moreover, no cascade of indictments has come down on the KMT in connection with this or any other case to match that of the KMT against the DPP. The focus on Chen Shui-bian and Lee Teng-hui blinds observers to the all-important context: the opening year of the first Ma Administration saw indictments against an array of pan-Green politicians, including Annette Lu, Su Chih-fen, Ma Yung-cheng, and Yu Cheng-hsien, and in consecutive days in October of 2008, James Lee, Chen Ming-wen, Wang Ting-yu, and Chiou I-jen. Presidents Chen and Lee were merely the most notable victims.

    There is no comparable context here. If there were, Sean Lien, Lien Chan, Alex Tsai, Eric Chu, Jason Hsu, Hung Hsiu-chu, and Wu Po-hsiung would all be under indictment, with indictments expected against more individual KMT politicians momentarily.

    Another missing context is authoritarianism: it was always KMT policy during the Party-State era to indict DPP and tangwai politicians routinely, to intimidate and control them. Even today a few DPP politicians have outstanding but dormant indictments against them. Neither of the DPP administrations carried out a similar program of anti-democratic attacks on the opposition party.

    The indictment of Ma is a single isolated case connected to a longstanding case that goes back nearly four years. in abeyance waiting for Ma to step down and end his presidential immunity. It is not part of any program. Though it is often linked to the attack on KMT assets in the pan-Blue spin, that latter move has long been promised, and would likely have been carried out as early as 2004 if Chen Shui-bian had not mismanaged the legislative election that year and blown the DPP’s shot at controlling the legislature. The two moves are carried out by unrelated bodies, the legislature and the prosecutor’s office, for unrelated reasons. The concurrent timing is just a coincidence.””

    • “Presidents Chen and Lee were merely the most notable victims.”

      Calling them victims, are you implying that Chen and his family didn’t commit corruption? It is hard to trust anything you say given how biased your opinion.

  2. What about the security agencies that were used to maintain the KMT rule on Taiwan for 40 years? Are they still a threat to the democratic system in Taiwan and headed by hard core KMT people and their supporters?

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