Since shedding authoritarian rule two decades ago, Taiwan has achieved commendable progress in democracy. On a recent visit, however, it was clear that while democracy continues to flourish, a number of serious concerns have arisen that threaten to shake public confidence in the country’s democratic institutions.
Our meetings with senior officials of both major political parties, as well as leaders of Taiwan’s diverse non-governmental organizations and academic community, revealed a palpable sense that the political system is becoming less transparent and more exclusive.
Several developments have triggered alarms among Taiwan’s civil society and international observers.
First, the judicial system’s impartiality and ability to hold the current government to account has come into question. The restoration of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to full political control in the aftermath of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) decisive victory in last year’s elections — along with an overwhelming legislative majority for his party — has weakened important checks and balances that had been in place over the previous eight years.
In the months since the KMT retook control, a spate of investigations have been launched against former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials and businesspeople connected to it. The apparent imbalance with which these cases are being pursued raises concerns of selective justice. One prominent lawyer in Taipei describes the phenomenon as a “judicial recession.”
Further exacerbating tension is the country’s politicized, tabloid-style news media, especially the use of certain outlets to discredit (would-be) defendants before they have their day in court. Six 24-hour cable news channels — four KMT-aligned and two favoring the DPP — pump out a steady diet of over-the-top coverage of political and legal scandal. A robust flow of leaks enables a pernicious form of “trial by media” for those pulled into the judicial vortex.
These phenomena came to a head in two recent cases. The first is that of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). The ultimate decision on the former president’s guilt or innocence will be decided by the courts, as it should be. However, the judicial process requires the utmost scrupulousness to ensure there is neither the fact nor perception of political interference. So far, such care has been lacking. A slipshod switching of judges just before year’s end and a grossly impolitic skit mocking the former president — during a party organized by Ministry of Justice officials — have raised eyebrows at home and abroad about the seriousness of the officials entrusted with handling this sensitive case.
The second case involves the investigation into clashes between police and citizens protesting Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin’s (陳雲林) visit to Taiwan in November. During this historic visit, more than 100 demonstrators and police were injured. Other citizens have complained of official harassment in response to peaceful acts of protest.
The National Police Agency undertook one review shortly after the event, which resulted in mild discipline, followed, incongruously, by promotions of several key officers. It apparently has undertaken a second more comprehensive internal review, but those findings have not been made public.
The Control Yuan is undertaking its own investigation, but the extent to which its findings will be made public is unclear. Perplexingly, the process of such an investigation, or even whether it is taking place at all, remains unknown to even the most well-informed members of Taiwan’s civil society, let alone the public-at-large.