TAIPEI – After 700 days in a prison cell on corruption charges, the fate of former president Chen Shui-bian had almost been forgotten by the Taiwanese. But in past few weeks, the disgraced political figure has again been dragged into the limelight.
Days after the Taipei District Court cleared him on one of the charges, the Supreme Court handed down a hefty 19-year prison sentence for him and his wife, Wu Shu-jen, on two other convictions. Since the Supreme Court rulings are final, it is now certain that Chen will stay in prison for a long period of time. Wu, disabled, may serve her term under house arrest.
Although only a minority of Taiwanese wants the pair to be freed, the two antipodal rulings have led to the emergence of a discomfiting notion. The ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party first
publicly criticized the judge who acquitted Chen and later applauded the one who handed down the heavier sentence. In what touches on a transgression of authority, President Ma Ying-jeou called for the weeding out of unqualified judges shortly after Chen’s initial acquittal. In the eyes of Chen’s supporters, the matter is all too clear. The KMT government put pressure on the judiciary to the disadvantage of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that Chen once led, at a time when Taiwan is readying itself for important elections.
No other person has polarized Taiwanese society more than Chen, who held the island’s presidency from 2000 to 2008. Ever since he was caught by cameras being taken away in handcuffs on November 2008 on charges of corruption, money laundering and bribery, he has been the sole political prisoner on the Taiwanese side of the Taiwan Strait to his supporters. For them, Chen, with his staunch anti-China and pro-democracy stances, is Taiwan’s version of Nelson Mandela, and the Beijing-friendly KMT regime has conspired with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to have him disgraced.
To his opponents, in sharp contrast, Chen is a man who used his presidency to secretly wire US$22 million into Swiss bank accounts; he is the leader who for the sake of gaining formal independence for Taiwan steered the tiny island towards war with the giant Chinese mainland and deliberately instigated a divide between Taiwanese with different ancestral backgrounds.
But after having languished for almost two years in jail, media coverage on Chen has gradually become sparser and most Taiwanese have grown indifferent to his fate. Even the DPP, under its new chairwoman Tsai Ying-wen, has gone a long way towards distancing itself from Chen’s legacy, which once haunted the party.
It wasn’t until the run-up to crucial polls that Chen, and his family, again grabbed the headlines. On November 27, more than half of Taiwan’s population will choose the leaders of the island’s five most populous and economically developed municipalities, including Taipei. Although these are local polls, there are weighty repercussions. The municipal elections are seen as a precursor to legislative elections next year and presidential elections in 2012.
As early as June, political commentator and former pan-blue lawmaker Yao Li-ming in an interview with Asia Times Online warned that sudden developments involving the former president could have an impact on the elections. ”Very soon, Chen will be freed on bail. If the DPP’s chairwoman Tsai refuses to rehabilitate Chen, she will lose support in the south; if she’s seen as being a good friend with him, the important political centrists in the north will be turned off,” said Yao back then.
Yao’s prediction that Chen would be freed on bail shortly before the elections didn’t come true. Still, in a bombshell ruling on November 5, three weeks before the elections, Chen was acquitted of corruption charges for taking NT$610 million (US$5.3 million) from two financial holding companies for his helping hand in merger deals. All 19 other co-defendants in the case, including Chen’s wife, his son Chen Chih-chung, daughter Chen Hsing-yu and daughter-in-law Huang Jui-ching, were also found not guilty of money laundering and other charges. However, as Chen continued to appeal other corruption convictions, he remained behind bars in spite of the acquittal.
Unsurprisingly, the KMT immediately had its indignant supporters up in arms. ”Chen’s acquittal at this stage is good for the KMT in Taipei and Xinbei [as the county surrounding Taipei will be called after its upgrade to a special municipality], because it mobilizes KMT supporters to vote”, said Chou Ying-lung, a lecturer at National Chengchi University’s Department of Political Science.
But not only the KMT’s supporters were mobilized by the ruling, which in their eyes was ridiculously lenient. Immediately after Chen’s acquittal, the KMT-controlled legislature, outraged by the prospect of having Chen walk free one day, decided to push forward the reform of judicial legislation. President Ma publicly encouraged speedy lawmaking that would prevent ”us from encountering more difficulties in the future”. He declined to directly comment on Chen’s ongoing case, but instead intimidatingly warned ”that the judiciary must not isolate itself from the outside world or deviate from public expectations” and further said that he would not necessarily ignore public anger over some judges whose rulings ”ran against people’s reasonable expectations”.
The DPP consequently accused Ma of interfering in the judiciary. Six days later, the Supreme Court handed down a total of 19 years in jail plus fines for Chen and his wife in two other cases on charges of taking bribes from businessmen.
As fast as the KMT’s supporters outrage over the first ruling calmed down, that of Chen’s supporters flared up over the second ruling. Once again in the line of fire: a judiciary that in the eyes of Chen’s supporters is nothing but a tool for political vendetta.
”When Chen wasn’t even yet under investigation, and there still wasn’t any evidence against him, staunch KMT supporters were all sure that Chen was guilty of corruption”, says Chen Mao-Hsiung, a professor at Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-sen University. ”On the other side, however, Chen’s supporters, also without having any evidence that could back their claim, insisted that the KMT had made it all up. Both sides accused the judiciary of political rulings, but actually it’s no one but the supporters themselves who hand down such rulings.”
On the other hand, Chen Yaw-shyang, an assistant professor of public policy at National Taipei University, is extremely critical of the KMT’s recent drive for judicial reform. In a number of high-profile cases earlier this year, judges were arrested on corruption charges and others who were perceived as being too lenient were put under tremendous pressure. In August, more than 150,000 people joined an online campaign targeting three judges for sentencing a child molester to three years and two months in prison, less than half the term sought by prosecutors.
”The recent rulings are typical political verdicts,” Professor Chen said. ”The Ma administration is a so-called new authoritariangovernment, and anti-corruption drives are only one of its means to achieve political ‘cleansing’.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum of opinion stands Zhang Baohui, an expert on East Asian democratization and an associate professor of political science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University. For him, corruption charges such as the ones laid against Chen Shui-bian aren’t a political tool an authoritarian government has on hand to suppress its opponents, but something positive for Taiwan’s development. He argued: ”The rule of law in Taiwan has been strengthened with the trial of Chen Shui-bian. The arrest of corrupt judges reflects this trend. I think inevitably the law has greater deterrence now than before, and other judges and government officials must be more careful with their conduct.”
Chen Shui-bian and his wife Wu Shu-jen were not the only members of the Chen family who suddenly made headlines with court cases in the run-up to the polls.
A day after Wu visited Chen in prison to bid a last farewell based on the assumption that she would not survive her lengthy prison term because of her already very frail health, their son, Chen Chih-chung lost a libel suit he brought against a tabloid that accused him of soliciting a prostitute. Chen Jr was also quick to denounce this ruling as a political one, meant to impede his chances in the November 27 elections, in which he runs as an independent candidate for a seat in the Kaohsiung City Council. However, the evidence against him is convincing. Prosecutors even plausibly alleged that Chen Jr had used his wife’s cell phone to arrange meetings with the sex worker.
Naturally, how all these recent controversies surrounding the Chen family will affect the outcome of the polls is being assessed by all parties involved. Contrary to initial assumptions, it now seems as if the actual impact on the DPP’s chances could well fall within the margin of error. According to an internal survey reportedly conducted by the DPP shortly after Chen Shui-bian was cleared, as many as a third of the DPP’s supporters found the ruling too lenient. In Taipei, the KMT gained 3% after the acquittal but lost 1.5% after the heavier ruling by the Supreme Court.
Ironically, the only person who is believed to actually benefit from the recent court cases involving the Chen family is the son. The allegations that he frequents prostitutes might not have been good for his marriage, but could well help him politically.
In slightly cryptic wording, lecturer Chou Ying-lung explained how things might work out for Chen Jr: ”In Taiwan, city councilors are elected by a single, non-transferable vote in a multi-member electoral district. In this system, a candidate does not need a majority to win. There are fifteen candidates seeking eight seats in Chen Chih-chung’s district, and one voter can only vote for one candidate. Theoretically, Chen only needs 11.1% of the votes. He will use the recent events to make some DPP supporters switch their votes to him.”