The corruption case involving former Executive Yuan secretary-general Lin Yi-shih (林益世) has left many people dumbfounded and wondering how the situation got so out of hand. This incident presents many challenges to President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) vow to have “clean politics” and he now has to consider how to turn this crisis into an opportunity for positive change.
Ma has declared that he will get to the bottom of this case and that anyone involved will be investigated, regardless of their position. I agree with this approach, but systemic change also requires political and administrative controls, maybe even more. If only Lin’s actions and criminal liability are investigated, then the results will not necessarily affect or change the systemic and environmental factors which lie at the heart of political corruption.
If systemic factors are not changed, other people may make similar mistakes in the future. In addition to the personal factors which contributed to Lin’s alleged wrongdoing, the systemic problems behind the incident must also be understood. There are at least three systemic failings that hinder clean politics:
First, there is a lack of transparency in Taiwanese political culture. People know that elections are expensive, so where do election funds come from and what are they spent on? Many people also know that while prosecutors and police have been cracking down on bribery in recent years, a lot of people are still willing to risk engaging in corruption. It is also widely believed, especially among politicians, that it is impossible to get elected unless one shells out a lot of money and that “vote captains” (樁腳) will not actively solicit votes without receiving “walking fees” (走路工).
In such an electoral culture, elected politicians must find ways to get back the money they invest in their campaigns. Alternatively, they will resort to doing everything they can to “serve” anyone who gives them major political contributions.
Second, political contributions lack transparency. In 2004, the legislature passed the Political Donations Act (政治獻金法), but the act has had a limited impact on political contributions over the past few years.
Corruption is still rife in many areas and political contributions are often used to perform a kind of lobbying function. Enforcing the act has proven difficult and political contributions have been forced underground because Taiwanese politics cannot exist without lobbying and the power of personal relations. However, most importantly, a lot of corruption exists because lobbying and political contributions are not done transparently, which leads to a lot of inappropriate and secretive competition. This is how many problems involving dirty politics come into being, which is especially true when dealing with so-called “businesses without capital” that are capable of bringing the bid winner huge economic gains, or with competition for bids for the handling of toxic and non-toxic waste.
Third, the administration is not transparent enough. For a long time, despite requirements of openness and transparency in bidding for construction contracts, projects for the handling of toxic waste have been complicated. Various “factors” have made it necessary for bidders to develop all sorts of tricks, including lobbying and applying pressure in various ways to win contacts. At certain times, even officials and their underworld counterparts are used to apply pressure to “settle” bids. This naturally affects the quality of the construction projects and connected labor services, which is why so-called “public relations” fees are extremely high for these types of projects.