Sat, Dec 04, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Make vote-buying charges carefully

Hualien Prosecutor Lee Tsu-chun's (李子春) controversial move to indict You Ying-lung (游盈隆) for vote-buying presents a number of important issues as food for thought. The most important one is: What constitutes "vote-buying" in the legal sense? No less important is the potential impact that Lee's move has on the checks and balances between two key government branches -- the executive and judiciary.

Unfortunately, Lee's move has almost no credible legal basis, and it could have a devastating impact. You is being charged with vote-buying for a statement he made in July last year while running for Hualien County commissioner. He said that if he won, a monthly NT$5,000 service allowance would be given to the county's Aboriginal chiefs to help them with community affairs. You's statement is referred to as "buying votes with policies" (政策買票) in the local Chinese-language media, because contrary to the conventional definition or concept of "vote-buying," what he was offering was not cash, gifts, or anything of value out of his own pocket, but something to be accomplished through policy implementation once he is elected.

A lot of people immediately responded to You's indictment with the question that if such "policy" vote-buying is illegal, then surely You should not be the only one indicted. After all, in Taiwan as well as anywhere in the world where government officials and lawmakers are elected through popular votes, almost all candidates try to win over support by promising certain policy implementations. In many cases, these policies, if implemented, will give immediate and direct benefits to voters.

Presumably, someone who makes promises for more noble causes -- such as long term social welfare or helping the needy -- instead of for the more selfish reason of getting elected, should not be characterized as "buying votes with policies." Rather, the person should be deemed as simply making "policy proposals." The person not only should not be punished by the law, but ought to be rewarded by getting elected if the policy proposal is indeed a good one.

On the other hand, someone who make these promises simply to win over votes should be condemned, at the very least morally, for abusing political democracy. The problem is this: How does one distinguish between genuine policy proposals and "policy" vote buying? All would concede that it is virtually impossible to probe into candidates' subjective intent and motives. Besides, most candidates' motives are probably a mixture of sincere policy goals and raw electioneering.

Under the circumstances, while one must admit that policy vote buying is morally wrong, it cannot fall within the scope of the legally-defined "vote buying." Instead of relying on prosecutors to determine whether a candidate is acting out of a selfish or noble motive, let voters decide themselves through casting their votes.

Moreover, the district court's consent to try the case despite the fact that legal procedure was not followed also raises questions. Normally, an indictment must be endorsed by a prosecutor's superior officers, including the chief prosecutor and prosecutor-general, before the indictment is handed down by a district court. But Lee did not obtain such endorsement.

If the judiciary branch can go ahead and try a case before the executive branch is ready to hand it over, won't that disturb the existing checks and balances of the government powers? Isn't it risky for us to rely on the sole judgment of an individual prosecutor to decide whether to prosecute someone, without additional screening mechanisms -- such as the endorsement of a superior -- to protect the rights of the accused? The answers to the above questions are all yes.

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