Return of Chen Shui-bian a dilemma for opposition party in Taiwan

Request by the jailed former president to rejoin party ranks is an unwelcome distraction that could affect its chances in key elections

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 June, 2013, 3:52am


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Taiwan's main opposition Democratic Progressive Party has been caught on the horns of a dilemma by the request of imprisoned former president Chen Shui-bian to return to the party he quit after being charged with corruption in 2008.

Its predicament was further compounded by Chen's attempted suicide on Sunday, in what has been seen as a move to put pressure on the pro-independence party.

A decision to reinstate Chen may prove to be too difficult to make for the pro-independence party, given that any misstep could intensify the rift in the party between pro- and anti-Chen forces and affect its chances in next year's local government polls and the 2016 presidential election.

Through his son and office, Chen expressed his desire last month to return to the party, saying he would "humbly accept" DPP arrangements, so he could rejoin the party he has long loved. DPP legislator Gao Jyh-peng said that if Chen could be readmitted, it would offer warmth to the former president and help improve his ailing condition.

The 62-year-old Chen, suffering from deep depression and other illnesses, is serving a 20-year jail term in a prison hospital in Taichung, central Taiwan. He was taken into custody shortly after he stepped down as president in 2008 and was convicted by the Supreme Court in 2010 for accepting bribes during his time in office between 2000 and 2008.

Chen offered to resign from the DPP in August 2008. In a news conference that afternoon, rather than saying he had accepted bribes as accused, he admitted he had failed to fully declare his campaign funds. Without disclosing the amount, he said his wife, Wu Shu-chen, transferred those funds abroad without informing him.

Although Chen has insisted that his corruption conviction was politically motivated by the mainland-friendly government of President Ma Ying-jeou, which he says wants to punish him for his anti-mainland stand to appease Beijing, the graft scandal has seriously tarnished the image of the DPP, resulting in its defeat in local government and presidential elections since 2008.

Given the possible backlash against the party if Chen were reinstated, former DPP legislator Lin Cho-shui questioned the efforts by Chen loyalists to orchestrate his return. "Welcoming him back is tantamount to putting an equal sign between him and the party," Lin said.

It would damage the party's image, given that most of the public believed Chen was guilty of corruption, though they felt compassion because of his poor health and predicament in jail, Lin said.

Former DPP chairman Hsu Hsin-liang simply said no, saying that if Chen were readmitted, the DPP would not stand a chance in next year's local government elections or the 2016 presidential poll.

With the graft scandal still fresh and Chen facing several other corruption-related trials, most DPP members see Chen as a time bomb.

Except for several heavyweights, including former DPP chairwoman Dr Tsai Ing-wen, who said Chen "would have to make a lot more effort to win back society's respect", many have stayed silent on the issue for fear of losing support from the hard-core pro-independence camp and other Chen supporters.

In a bid to get Chen's membership reinstated, a group of DPP legislators, many from heavily pro-independence southern Taiwan, initiated a petition drive asking party members to back the Chen case. They even published the names of legislators who failed to endorse the drive.

On Sunday, Chen used towels in an attempt to hang himself, only to be stopped by prison guards monitoring him in his hospital cell.

Chen later told the guards and visitors that the party's indecision over his return was one of the reasons he was upset and wanted to die.

Legislator Ker Chien-ming, a Chen loyalist who visited him in his cell, told him the party would make a decision next week.

The party's central body had asked the DPP's Taipei city committee to deal with Chen's application. Realising it was a hot potato, the committee sent the issue back to party central for a final review, without saying whether Chen is qualified to return or not.

The controversy over Chen's return is tipped to widen the row between pro-Chen and anti-Chen factions within the party.

The ruling Kuomintang is heartened by the latest development over Chen, which it hopes will bolster its chances of securing wins in next year's local government elections.

The failure of the Ma government to improve the island's economy has greatly dampened public support for the Kuomintang. But the Chen issue is likely to help the KMT by linking the DPP back to corruption, a situation the party has been painstakingly trying to avoid.