Riding on the graft updraft

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2011, 12:00am

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Presidential politics in Taiwan gained a new twist last week with the indictment of former president Lee Teng-hui on graft charges.

On the surface, the charges against Lee and his former chief aide, Liu Tai-ying, would seem to be a blow to their pro-independence camp. The two are accused of embezzling US$7.8 million in national security funds while in office between 1988 and 2000.

Some mainland-friendly Kuomintang lawmakers believe as much. They think the indictment will boost the prospects of their ruling party, whose leader Ma Ying-jeou is seeking a second four-year term in January's presidential election.

They reason that the stain of the charges will taint Ma's challenger, Dr Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic Progressive Party's chairwoman.

After all, Lee has been an enthusiastic supporter of Tsai, exhorting the island's voters to 'dump Ma in order to save Taiwan'. Tsai also worked as Lee's aide on the controversial 'special state-to-state relationship' theory in 1999 that placed Taiwan and China as two states. That prompted an angry Beijing - which sees the island as a mainland province - to halt plans to improve cross-strait relations.

The 88-year-old Lee is the second former president to be indicted on corruption and money laundering charges. His successor, Chen Shui-bian, is serving a 171/2- year prison term for two bribery convictions, with more hearings pending.

Tsai was a vice-premier during Chen's presidential tenure. According to Taiwanese media, Tsai received NT$2 million (HK$541,000) in 'research funds' for her state-to-state report and the money allegedly came from a secret security fund controlled by Lee - allegations that Tsai firmly denies.

So, on the one hand, Lee's indictment on embezzlement charges could remind voters of all that messy past. At the very least, KMT lawmakers say, it should help galvanise KMT supporters dispirited - according to KMT legislator Chiu Yi - by 'Ma's procrastination in dealing with graft cases involving leaders from the 'green camp'', a reference to the coalition that includes the DPP.

But the situation is not that simple. It is just as likely that Lee's indictment will galvanise voters in the other direction - especially in southern Taiwan, where voters are more provincial and tend to support Lee, a native Taiwanese, rather than Ma who is of mainland origin.

'Voters might question if the indictment was politically motivated,' KMT legislator Hou Tsai-feng said.

Supporters of the pro-independence camp are angrily suggesting just that on underground radio stations, heaping scorn on the KMT and Ma and accusing them of ordering the judiciary to prosecute Lee.

'China's Ma is using the indictment to humiliate Taiwanese people, and we should all vote against him,' a radio show host said in Tainan, a traditional base of the pro-independence camp in southern Taiwan.

Accusing the mainland of masterminding the so-called political persecution and Ma of following Beijing's orders, the host said Lee and Chen were indicted purely because they were native Taiwanese and supported Taiwan independence.

The DPP was also quick to use the indictment to accuse the Ma government of political manipulation.

Tsai questioned the timing of Lee's indictment and said judicial cases should never be 'used as tools to serve political interests or for election purposes'. She said that given Taiwan's unique past, the government should re-examine the legal basis of many secret funds and programmes and should never be selective in handling judicial cases. That 'unique past' was a reference to the period of authoritarian rule between 1949 and 1988, when the entire island was under the control of the late KMT leaders Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo.

Dr Shih Cheng-feng, dean of the college of indigenous studies at National Dong Hwa University, said the indictment benefited the DPP more than the KMT. 'Supporters of Lee would have no other choice but to stump for Tsai in order to avenge what they believe is an injustice by the Ma government,' he said. The backlash should add at least 300,000 votes for Tsai, he said.

Political commentator Yang Hsien-hung said that though Lee had retired, he still had influence within the native Taiwanese group.

'But the case is a double-edged sword to both the KMT and the DPP,' Yang said - explaining why both parties have been cautious in dealing with the case.

The allegations of political motivation forced Ma to come out to defend himself. He insisted he had no role in the case and denied it was politically motivated. 'I always have and always will respect the law and justice,' he said in a two-minute news conference on Friday.

At least one analyst said Lee and his Taiwan Solidarity Party were the biggest beneficiaries of the indictment.

'Despite being indicted, in a way Lee and the TSU should be the biggest winner in this case,' political analyst George Tsai Wei, professor of Chinese Cultural University in Taipei, said.

He said the indictment had revived the public's memory of Lee as the one who shaped Taiwan's fledging democracy by pushing through freedom of speech and assembly and popular elections - raising his political influence, which had since faded.

Indeed, the TSU has regarded the indictment as a gift from heaven. It has spun the case as an order from the mainland to punish Lee for his pro-independence stand.

The party, which has fielded candidates in the legislative elections to be held in tandem with the January presidential poll, will stage a mass rally in Chiayi this weekend to solicit support for Lee and the party's legislative candidates.

Speaking at a rally for Tsai on Friday, Lee dismissed the corruption charges against him as groundless and compared Ma's government to that of an oppressor.

'I don't fear death, let alone these oppression tactics,' he said.

'Even If I die, there will be thousands of 'Lee Teng-huis' standing up to fight for Taiwanese entity and Taiwan's democracy.'

Supporters shouted 'Injustice!' Some had tears in their eyes.

Highs and lows

Major events associated with Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's first local and directly elected president:

1988 succeeds Chiang Ching-kuo as Taiwan's president after Chiang's death

1991 restores democratic functions of government - suspended since 1949 in an effort to suppress communism - following student protests for greater democracy

1995 visits the United States, despite protests from Beijing, in the run-up to Taiwan's first island-wide democratic elections. The mainland fires missiles over Taiwan for eight months over the prospect of Lee being democratically elected

1996 becomes Taiwan's first popularly elected president

1999 announces the theory of 'special state-to-state relationship' between Taiwan and the mainland, which escalates tensions across the Taiwan Strait

2000 steps down from the presidency and expelled from the Kuomintang following a year amid accusations that he plotted to help the Democratic Progressive Party win the election

2008 accused by his successor, Chen Shui-bian, of money laundering

2011 charged with embezzlement and money laundering