On Friday last week, Yunlin District Court annulled the election to the legislature of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislative caucus secretary-general Chang Sho-wen (張碩文) in the opening trial of a vote-buying case. It is a case that has taken twists and turns.
Chang’s father, Chang Hui-yuan (張輝元), chairman of the Yunlin Irrigation Association, had been detained on suspicion of bribing people to vote for his son, but is now out on bail of NT$10 million (US$300,000). Prosecutors are seeking a 30-year jail term.
The vote-buying in this case was wide-ranging and sophisticated. As many as 15 of the legislator’s vote captains were involved and most of them were found guilty.
On April 19, the day after the court released the elder Chang on bail, the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) ran a story entitled “The legal deadline for nullifying Chang Sho-wen’s election result has passed.”
Many readers wrote in to criticize the prosecutors for letting Chang off the hook. In response, the prosecutors argued that it was the father who was accused of vote-buying, not Chang Sho-wen himself, thus nullifying the election was inconsistent with the law.
But now, the court has declared Chang’s election invalid. The verdict shows just how negligent Yunlin’s prosecutors were in handling the case.
Among the 295 legislative candidates who stood for 79 seats in local constituencies, 18 have been charged with criminal offenses related to vote-buying. Of these, six were elected and 12 were not. Prosecutors have launched proceedings against five of the six, calling for their elections to be annulled.
A proposal to amend the Public Officials Election and Recall Act (公職人員選舉罷免法) is on the agenda. The idea is to amend Article 127, which would annul an election after an unsuccessful second appeal instead of after an unsuccessful first appeal, as is the case now.
If the amendment were passed, it would allow elected officials suspected of vote-buying to serve out their terms as their cases drag on from one trial to another. The law as it stands is a thorn in the side of corrupt legislators, with its so-called “blitzkrieg clause” requiring that the verdict after the first appeal be final, and that the duration of each trial be limited to six months.
The effectiveness of the existing law can be seen from the fact that, among officials elected in 2005, 37 city and county councilors have been removed from their posts and replaced by runner-up candidates, while 14 city mayors, county commissioners and township mayors have been dismissed and replaced in by-elections.
If the law is not amended, the 18 legislators and defeated candidates who are facing criminal charges will see their cases move to an appeal. If their convictions are upheld, the unsuccessful candidates will go to prison immediately, while those elected will be removed from their seats and then go to jail.
If the Act is changed so that cases limited to two trials are allowed one more appeal, the example of former Taichung City Council speaker Kuo Yen-sheng (郭晏生), which has dragged on for 13 years after he was accused of irregularities in 1995, will be commonplace. If vote-buying cases against elected officials cannot be resolved within their term of office, there would be little point in investigating anyone.
The Yunlin example shows that prosecutors need more education on probing vote-buying cases. The Ministry of Justice should investigate the handling of the Chang case to see if there is more to it than meets the eye.