The pan-blues and the pan-greens have been stuck in a huge argument over how to help fruit farmers, who find themselves in a difficult situation that will take more than one election-cycle worth of campaign promises to fix. Nevertheless, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) on Tuesday demonstrated his concern by buying about 5,000kg of persimmons at a market using money from the state affairs fund. The money can be used at a president’s discretion, but the real question is whether Ma was acting as president, or as the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) presidential candidate.
While it does seem that those two positions (plus Ma as KMT chairman) are even more one and the same these days, it is a legally valid question. The two jobs are not inseparable, whatever the KMT may believe.
It would appear from the press coverage that it was Ma the candidate who was scooping up the tasty fruit, since he seemed more focused at taking potshots at his main rival, Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), than promoting a comprehensive farm policy. If so, shouldn’t Ma have used his campaign office’s money to buy the fruit, since it didn’t really seem as if he was acting in his capacity as president? But then he couldn’t do that — since that might appear to be vote-buying.
Taiwan has grown accustomed to presidents using their special funds any which way they want, but look at what happened to Ma’s predecessor — or Ma himself with the Taipei mayor’s discretionary fund. It is time that clear — or clearer — lines are drawn when it comes to presidential spending, especially while on the campaign trail. It gives the incumbent an unfair advantage to have a (apparently) limitless source of discretionary funding. It is one thing to use these funds for hongbao (red envelopes containing cash) at weddings; it is another to be buying up bucket loads of fruit to score political points in a re-election bid.
This is not a persnickety question. It would be a valid question even if Ma had a resounding lead over Tsai because the nation has been reminded once again this week of the fickleness of the law when it comes to politicians and discretionary spending and budgetary responsibilities.
The same day Ma was picking persimmons, the Taiwan High Court upheld the Shilin District Court’s ruling that former National Palace Museum director Shih Shou-chien (石守謙) and 14 others were not guilty of corruption in relation to renovations to the museum’s main exhibition hall. The Shilin District Prosecutors’ Office had been asking for 15 years in prison for Shih.
The High Court found many mistakes in the prosecution’s indictment, citing a lack of sufficient evidence to have justified pursuing charges, and more worryingly, said some of the charges might have violated the law. The prosecutors can still appeal the verdict — like in a few recent cases involving officials of the former DPP government — to the Supreme Court, but given the High Court’s withering ruling, one would hope they wouldn’t.
It is looking more and more like many of the cases that the prosecutors have been pursuing with such vigor over the past three-and-a-half years are grounded in politics rather than in law, as many have long suspected. If true, that harkens back to the dark years of the former KMT administration, when political vendettas ran as rampant as political paranoia. If it is not true, then it looks like prosecutors nationwide all need to take refresher courses in evidentiary review processes.