President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) on Wednesday faced off in a televised debate among presidential candidates.
Han talked of his intention, if elected, to reincarnate the Special Investigation Division (SID), which was mandated to investigate major economic crimes, corruption and negligence by high-level officials. It was established during the DPP administration of then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and abolished by Tsai’s administration.
The reason for its dissolution, reiterated in response to Han’s proposal, was suggestions of wrongdoing by the SID linked to then-prosecutor-general Huang Shih-ming (黃世銘) during then-president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) second term. The KMT at the time said that the abolition was politically motivated, linking it to Chen’s prosecution for corruption and abuse of power in 2008 immediately after Ma took office.
Han made the SID proposal to gain political ground, exploiting accusations of corruption by the DPP and the Tsai administration.
A string of recent scandals has provided plenty of ammunition, including alleged money laundering by DPP Legislator Chen Ming-wen (陳明文) and his son Chen Cheng-ting (陳政廷), an investigation into cigarette smuggling involving National Security Bureau personnel on a presidential charter flight following a state visit; and suggestions that the DPP was behind campaign interference by employing the services of Yang Hui-ju (楊蕙如), who was indicted by the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office this month for allegedly paying people to manipulate public opinion online.
Tsai really did not need another controversy over election interference and inappropriate use of power by a public official.
Enter Deputy Minister of Justice Tsai Pi-chung (蔡碧仲).
On Tuesday, Tsai Pi-chung posted a photograph of himself, when he was acting commissioner of Hualien County last year, with Hualien County DPP Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) on Facebook, praising Hsiao’s qualities and calling on people to vote for her.
The KMT had a field day.
The next day, Minister of Justice Tsai Ching-hsiang (蔡清祥) hauled him into his office and asked him to remove the Facebook post. By then the damage had been done. The KMT was accusing Tsai Pi-chung of using his official position to endorse the candidate of a political party, jeopardizing public trust in the neutrality of the judiciary.
The deputy minister defended the post, saying that the photograph represented him in his capacity as county commissioner and that according to the Civil Service Administrative Neutrality Act (公務人員行政中立法), he was technically exempt — even as deputy justice minister — from prohibitions on campaigning for candidates.
Regardless, there is an unwritten understanding in Taiwan that representatives of the judiciary keep their distance from elections. This dates back to late 2003, when then-minister of justice Chen Ding-nan (陳定南) announced his intention to join Chen Shui-bian on the campaign trail, causing an uproar. Aware of the damage his presence might cause to the party and to the democratic system, he withdrew.
Tsai Pi-chung might well be justified in his defense, but by refusing to accept the criticism or acknowledge the damage he is doing, he is putting himself above the party, party above the integrity of the democratic system, and technicalities above public trust in the judiciary.
Offering his resignation would be a dignified, responsible move after this clumsy misstep.
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