Wed, Dec 07, 2005 - Page 8 News List

DPP can't see the forest for the trees

By Ku Er-Teh 顧爾德

Back in 1996, the media reported on a 2,500-table campaign dinner sponsored by a steel magnate from southern Taiwan for former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝). An event of this scale had never been seen before.

At that time the Ministry of Justice's definition of vote-buying was relatively loose, even though the minister of justice then was Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), currently Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman, who had a reputation for incorruptibility. It was Chen Ding-nan (陳定南) who established the strict, even harsh definition that any gift of NT$30 or more constituted a bribe when he took over as justice minister.

As it turns out, allegations of misconduct surrounding the campaigns of two Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidates, Chen and Luo Wen-chia (羅文嘉), had an influence on the result in this year's local government elections. According to these allegations, Chen had offered free dinner tickets as an inducement to vote for him, while Luo was accused of giving potential voters NT$150 each as a "travel allowance" so that they could attend his campaign rally. The media also had their fun, saying that Chen had shot himself in the foot by insisting on a stricter definition of what constitutes vote-buying.

There is a lot of uncertainty about what constitutes vote-buying. Supporters buying dinner vouchers for friends and relatives, using their own money to pay for 10 or 20 tables and providing free dinners at which candidates can try to convince people to vote for them are all considered vote-buying practices. But what about a candidate's campaign headquarters doling out free fried noodles, fish-ball soup and soft drinks, worth a total of NT$30? Lunch boxes, refreshments, T-shirts, caps and waterproofs given out during campaign events could cost around NT$100 each. And isn't providing free tour buses to take supporters to campaign rallies the same as giving them a "travel allowance?"

If the general public agrees to apply stricter standards to what we consider vote-buying, this is a mark of progress. On the other hand, that won't be easy when many of these practices have in the past been considered socially acceptable by the majority of people.

But what exactly are we trying to achieve by regulating campaigners' conduct during these elections? And is it possible to achieve these objectives?

Traditionally, local politics has been predominantly partisan in nature. After many years of KMT rule, local party groups have been the main mechanism in which politics has been conducted. Money politics and corruption have gradually taken hold under this system, which has seen the monopolization of political resources and subsequent distribution of financial resources. Vote-buying and free dinners are a pretty minor manifestation of this whole system.

Ridding us of the bankroll power and political corruption that took hold during the Martial Law era will naturally have a positive effect on the development of our democracy and elections. But you have to ask whether legal teams using so many human and material resources just to investigate the alleged handing out of trifling amounts of money or NT$3,000-per-table dinners is actually going to help us achieve this aim.

Chiu Tai-san (邱太三) was another DPP candidate with a clean reputation. In his concession speech, Chiu remarked that it was simply too difficult to overcome local partisanship in Taichung County. While it would be wrong to equate local partisanship with political corruption, this system for the distribution of political resources has become ingrained, and it will be very difficult to dismantle the channels through which the interests of money politics are transmitted. One should certainly not expect anything like a social democracy.

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