The ruling by the Taipei District Court on Nov. 5 finding former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and his wife not guilty in a bribery case was construed by many — including this author — as a sign that the judiciary under the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration was beginning to reassert its independence. Reaction to the news by the pan-blue camp was so strident, and the decision so antithetical to what ostensibly has been a policy of keeping Chen in check, that the court appeared to have laid to rest fears that the judiciary had become little more than a conveyor belt for the Ma government.
Commenting on the ruling, some elements within the pan-green camp, meanwhile, said this was only part of a series of rulings that ultimately would fully exonerate the former president. Chen’s smile as he emerged from a police van on his way to court for another case earlier this week also spoke volumes about how he interpreted this unexpected development.
However, we should refrain from jumping to conclusions and assuming that this proves the independence of the judiciary. In fact, the timing — less than a month prior to the Nov. 27 special municipality elections — is itself suspicious. No sooner had Judge Chou Chan-chun (周占春) announced the decision than the KMT shifted into high gear and turned the court ruling and by rebound Chen, into an instrument to mobilize pan-blue voters.
Admittedly there is little evidence to prove that such a sinister plot is afoot. That said, once we put the ruling in the context of elections in which Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidates are not performing as well as expected and where a high turnout among pan-blue voters on Nov. 27 could be a deciding factor in very close races in Taipei and Sinbei (the name to be given to Taipei County when it is upgraded at the end of the year), we may be tempted to revisit our assumptions.
What if, facing the possibility of losing the traditionally pan-blue Taipei City and currently KMT-controlled Taipei County in an election that is perceived as a “referendum” on Ma’s presidency and a bellwether for the 2012 presidential election, the Ma administration pressured the judiciary into finding Chen not guilty only for that decision to reinvigorate deeply ingrained anti-Chen (and associated anti-corruption) sentiment among the pan-blue camp?
Under such a scenario, the strategy would be to tap into those emotions to transcend, and ultimately overturn, general lack of enthusiasm for the KMT candidates, who for the most part have run largely uninspired campaigns. Why else would a rally in support of Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin’s (郝龍斌) re-election bid scheduled for Nov. 21 suddenly turn into a protest against corruption? Why else would the KMT call upon voters to express their “anger” at the court decision by voting for their candidates?
If political machinations indeed are behind the court ruling, Ma’s indignation and crass references to the “will” and “expectations of the people” would have been nothing more than theater, cover for a temporary, self-inflicted setback meant for tactical gain.
After all, although Chen has been found not guilty in that particular case, the ruling can be appealed and he faces several other charges that, if found guilty, would keep him locked up for many years to come (the Supreme Court ruling on Thursday sentencing Chen to 11 years in jail in a land purchase scandal is a case in point).
Another reason to suspect the ruling may be part of the KMT’s political strategy stems from the uncomfortable position in which the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) now finds itself. While it surely welcomes the ruling as confirmation that the party is not corrupt, it also threatens to bring back to the surface a number of issues surrounding Chen from which the DPP has sought to distance itself in recent years. In fact, if Chen again became the focus of attention, it would sow disunity within the party and could undermine its performance in the elections.
Conversely, if the DPP came out and accused Ma and the judiciary of using the ruling as part of a political game, its critics could fire back by saying that the DPP disagrees with a ruling that proves it is not corrupt — in other words, an admission that it is, in fact, corrupt.
Although there is no doubt that the DPP itself made some electoral gains following allegations of corruption involving the Hau administration over the Taipei International Flora Expo and the Xinsheng Overpass rejuvenation project, those revelations came too early in the election to have a substantial impact on the ultimate outcome and will likely have been forgotten by the time voters head to the polling stations.
As many political commentators would tell us, in an electoral race, only the last three weeks really matter. We have just entered that period and the Chen case, along with the attendant keyword “corruption,” is fresh in every voter’s mind. Fresh enough enough to mobilize voters who otherwise might have stayed home.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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