It has been said in this space that the attempts of the central government to crackdown on vote buying in the Hualien by-election by the use of road blocks and searches was justified, because vote-buying has serious deleterious effects on the democratic process, the suppression of which is more important than the minor infringement of civil liberties that random checks of automobiles along the highways of Hualien County may constitute.
But it was interesting to note that after the election on Saturday, certain commentators seemed to be surprised that the people of the remote eastern county were not more grateful to them for trying to ensure, with their roadblocks and searches, that the exercise of their democratic prerogative would not be sullied with the taint of the corruption that is known in the KMT as "traditional electoral methods."
At the risk of being accused of cognitive dissonance, we have to say that we find it perfectly understandable why the people of Hualien were unimpressed with the anti-vote-buying campaign and its road blocks. No doubt they didn't understand what searching people's vehicles was expected to produce in the way of evidence of vote-buying and neither can we.
It is not that we haven't tried. We have racked our brains to come up with something that one might find in a car that would tie its driver or someone else to vote-buying. Perhaps a list of names, big boxes of cash with a post-it note on top signed by a vote captain, saying, "please distribute this cash to the these people in return for their vote on Saturday."
Certainly that would constitute evidence. But we no more believe in this vaudeville scenario than we believe that burglars wear striped jerseys and carry bags marked "swag," or that anarchists -- terrorists, they would be called today -- all wear wide-brimmed hats and black capes under which they conceal a black iron grenade with a burning fuse marked "bomb."
Ah, these well-loved images from the comics of our youth. But, in the words of that formidable campaigner -- albeit not for public office -- St. Paul "When I became a man, I put away childish things." So did we all. So we are still puzzled as to what the scores of police officers searching peoples' cars on the highway expected to find.
The Council of Grand Justices determined in Constitutional Interpretation No. 535, issued in December 2001, that random searching without a warrant or probable cause is illegal. The police cannot stop and search you or your vehicle without a reason. The question we would like to ask is: "does the fact that an election is going on in a certain location constitute probable cause that anyone traveling local highways is engaged in vote buying?" Obviously not. Robberies take place in Taipei every day, but that does not constitute probable cause to search all MRT travelers, for instance, for the proceeds of these crimes.
We have commented on the sheer implausibility of anything incriminating being found in these searches. But then to conduct them without probable cause in defiance of the Constitution leaves us with only one word to describe them -- intimidation. It is quite simply a display of the heavy hand of the law to cow people into behaving themselves, given that the actual malefactors are so elusive.
Frankly we find this behavior disgusting. It is bullying worthy of the KMT martial law era. It is not the respect for civil liberties and human rights that the DPP traditionally advocates and that President Chen Shui-bian promised to make a central part of the justice system. The actions in Hualien trashed basic civil liberties for no purpose and on the flimsiest of pretexts. The government should be ashamed of itself.