This week has seen a frenzy of action in the wake of a report that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) had met with bookmaker Chen Ying-chu (陳盈助) in September: Ma has filed a civil lawsuit against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the party’s spokesperson Liang Wen-chieh (梁文傑) for criticizing his allegedly secret meeting with Chen; Chen and Chiayi Mayor Huang Ming-hui (黃敏惠) are suing Next Magazine; and yesterday, Chen placed ads in every major newspaper in Taiwan saying he had not made donations to any politician.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Chiu Yi (邱毅) has taken the issue one step further, accusing DPP legislators Chen Ming-wen (陳明文) and Cheng Wen-tsang (鄭文燦) of having met with Chen Ying-chu to ask for support for DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). It is as if the bookie were Medusa, turning anyone he looks at into stone.
The fact is that Chen Ying-chu is not currently involved in any lawsuits nor is he wanted by police, so meeting with him is not against the law. So why the controversy and political fallout?
Chen Ying-chu may talk of being loyal and generous toward his friends, but the gambling racket he allegedly controls remains illegal. There has been speculation that the assassination attempt on then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) on the eve of his re-election in 2004 was carried out by gamblers, and some say the shooting of Sean Lien (連勝文), former vice president Lien Chan’s (連戰) son, at a campaign event last year was also connected to gambling. This is nothing new, as past incidents have shown that election-related gambling can easily lead to violence.
A Presidential Office statement issued on Wednesday last week confirmed that Ma has on two occasions met with Chen Ying-chu at the recommendation of mutual friends, first in January 2008 and then in September 2009, both times to solicit local personalities for their electoral support.
Ma denies having met with Chen Ying-chu this year, but admits they have met on two occasions in the past. He also says no promises were made at those meetings, that he did not accept any political donations, that there was no exchange of benefits and that his only wish had been to do some election campaigning.
Meeting with a powerful bookmaker easily raises questions and that could lead to at least two consequences: First, Ma was elected president in March 2008. His meetings with Chen Ying-chu could be interpreted as encouragement and an endorsement of the big-time bookie’s actions. Second, Ma always extols the importance of holding to high moral standards. By meeting with Chen Ying-chu, his actions were in discord with his statements and that could spoil his image and cause people to lose confidence in him.
The key issue is not whether Ma met with Chen Ying-chu this year, nor is it how many times they had met in the past. The issue is whether a president or a presidential candidate should meet with such a controversial individual at all. If it was acceptable to meet with Chen in the past, then it should be acceptable to meet with him now. By the same token, if it is inappropriate to meet with Chen now, why was it appropriate to meet with him previously?
Even if Chen Ming-wen and Cheng Wen-tsang had met with Chen Ying-chu, that is less of an issue because of their different statuses. However, if Ma, in his capacity as president, meets with a controversial individual at an inappropriate time, he is committing a serious transgression, one he may have to pay a heavy political price for, regardless of when the meeting took place.