Since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) started his second term on May 20 last year, several of his closest and most important aides have been involved corruption scandals.
On June 27 last year, then-Executive Yuan secretary-general and former head of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Youth League Lin Yi-shih (林益世) was implicated in a corruption scandal. On Nov. 30, Nantou County Commissioner Lee Chao-ching (李朝卿), whom both Ma and Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) had guaranteed to be clean and honest, was questioned by prosecutors over allegations he solicited bribes in connection with a post-disaster reconstruction project.
On Jan. 29, Changhua County Commissioner Cho Po-yuan (卓伯源) was questioned over his involvement in a corruption case involving his younger brother, Cho Po-chung (卓伯仲), and on March 27, KMT Taipei City Councilor Lai Su-ju (賴素如), who was also the director of Ma’s office as KMT chairman and served as his lawyer, was taken into custody on bribery allegations.
These cases have not only dealt a heavy blow to the image of Ma, who takes pride in being clean and honest, they have also weakened his control over the KMT.
There are reports that political infighting within the party is intensifying, as local factions jockey for position ahead of the seven-in-one local elections next year and the presidential election in 2016. Since there are few politicians that can stand up to public scrutiny, more scandals that will have a huge political impact, are likely to emerge.
Corruption is a problem that is deeply rooted in the structure of Taiwanese politics. Large financial corporations and interest groups make overt political contributions. We have seen people at the top demand donations from unwilling firms and indivduals.
We have also seen people pay others to undermine the opposition, or hedge their bets by roving back and forth between political parties. And of course there are those who strike deals over specific legal cases or interests. For example, public works is one area in which it is difficult to separate money and power.
When former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was a legislator, his office outside the legislature was overstaffed with people funded by corporations. After he became president, many medium and large-sized corporations were pressured to make donations during elections. At the time, a senior KMT member joked that the KMT was like a mosquito that is so full, it did not need to suck too much blood and thus did not do much harm, whereas the DPP was like a mosquito that was starving out in the wild and when given the chance, bit like mad, thus leaving not only nasty bites, but also hurting people.
However, there are even more under-the-table deals involved in grassroots politics. Election advertising, printing election pamphlets, mobilizing people and soliciting votes all require money, and at large-scale campaign rallies, the central government only has to say the word for local factions to provide people and money to organize tour buses, distribute lunchboxes and pay “walking fees.”
Where does all this money come from, and what happens when local factions are sometimes expected to demonstrate their financial ability by paying kickbacks to party headquarters?
Because all levels of government are in on the action and because businesspeople and politicians collude with each other, public works projects have become big business that everyone wants a share of. Those with few moral scruples skimp on materials and labor, and the public is saddled with poor-quality buildings and projects.
When things break, these politicians take advantage of a natural disaster to apply for more funding to “fix” them. When local politicians graduate to the national government, they bring their corrupt practices with them. As other local politicians learn from those at the top, corruption becomes unstoppable.
When Ma and his administration got into power, they prided themselves on being clean and honest, but not long after, a scandal involving military officers buying promotions broke. Although the Ministry of National Defense was told to investigate and submit a report within three months, the issue was simply forgotten and nothing was done.
Neither did the Ma administration do anything about rumors of people bribing their way into posts in the judiciary during the previous administration.
With this inability to root out corruption, a lack of resolve to clean up bureaucracy, and claims of being clean and honest while failing to impose discipline means a political crisis cannot be far off. The structural corruption that exists in the KMT has not been eliminated and as new leaders with a background in local politics enter central government without changing their corrupt practices, they will only have themselves to blame when things go wrong.
If this current crisis is not handled properly, the KMT could very well become one big lame duck.
If a strict anti-corruption mechanism was established, the status of the Agency Against Corruption was elevated and the government showed a stronger resolve to eradicate corruption, public support for the KMT would naturally return.
However, if the government continues to deal with corruption by talking tough, but doing nothing, then the rules of democracy dictate that not only the judiciary, but all political leaders, will have to face the court of public opinion and politicians will face the scrutiny of voters.
Norman Yin is a professor of financial studies at National Chengchi University.
Translated by Drew Cameron