Jailed former president Chen Shui-bian (A-bian, 陳水扁), who served two terms as chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), but gave up his membership after being charged with corruption in 2008, quietly rejoined the party on Wednesday last week.
One might expect this news to make a big splash on the political scene, but both the DPP and Chen’s office have done their best to keep it low-key.
The panel set up by the DPP to review Chen’s application was originally determined to arrive at a consensus decision, but in the end it had to make do with a majority decision because some of its members were still against taking Chen back into the fold. The panel gave a one-sentence explanation, saying it was respecting the decision made by a local party branch. This timid statement does not give the impression that the DPP is confident it has done the right thing.
Some time ago, Lin Cho-shui (林濁水), a political commentator and former chief executive of the DPP Policy Committee, urged the party to use the occasion of Chen’s application to make a historic assessment of his contributions and shortcomings. Lin drew a comparison with the Chinese Communist Party’s assessment of former leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) as having been “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong” in the aftermath of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, saying that this appraisal had enabled former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) to boldly forge ahead.
However, the DPP has quietly opened the door to Chen without having made any such assessment.
Given the DPP’s lack of attention to the rights and wrongs of the matter, Lin said that this would be an extremely shameful record in the annals of the party.
The return to the DPP of someone who held the office of president for eight years is obviously a highly significant event. Considering its importance, one would expect the party to let Chen enter through the front gate and walk up a broad avenue, but the DPP has kept very quiet. It dares not answer questions that are worrying the public, such as whether Chen’s readmission means that the party has rehabilitated him and agrees that the cases against him are a matter of political repression.
If these are the party’s positions, people want to know whether it will now call on the public to declare war on the oppressor, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), as it did years ago when it pilloried the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime, calling for a retrial of the Kaohsiung Incident case. People are wondering whether the DPP wants to see Chen’s reputation restored.
The public will not get any answers to these questions, because Chen has not been readmitted as a result of a debate aimed at getting to the bottom of the matter and establishing the truth, but merely a compromise for the sake of patching up differences among DPP members and supporters.
The party has let Chen back in, not because it agrees that he is a victim of political repression, but because the top ranks do not want to offend him, and because they are afraid of potential exposures by Chen’s family and nagging questions from his supporters, which could have an impact on elections, especially the DPP’s own primaries.
Rather than being confident that they have done the right thing, the party’s leaders made a decision because they were afraid of losing control. They dared not offend Chen, but neither could they explain what they were doing, so all they could do was to quietly approve his application.
The DPP’s decisionmakers are blurring the rights and wrongs of the matter, and they have a guilty conscience about it. Compared with its resolute opposition to political repression in the past, the DPP is now a shadow of its former self.
The DPP’s unwillingness to face up to its own history has gotten it caught in the historical whirlpool surrounding Chen. On the one hand, the party cannot pass the test of clean government, and it still finds itself in the shadow of a government turned corrupt. On the other hand, it cannot distance itself from the position that there are two separate nation states on either side of the Taiwan Strait, so that people always suspect it of seeking de jure independence for Taiwan.
Who has the most cause to celebrate the DPP’s unconditional acceptance of Chen’s application? Without doubt, the KMT has gained the most from it. Mired as Ma’s government is in all kinds of difficulties, he has suddenly been presented with a great way of showing that the opposition party is even worse than his own.
He must feel as if a great weight has been taken off his shoulders. The KMT has been getting very worried about its prospects, but now it must be gratified to see how the DPP has given up its quest for progress. Much to the KMT’s delight, the curse of Chen Shui-bian is something it can still use against the DPP.
While the Ma government has gone from plain incompetence to out-and-out abuse of its authority, the DPP has gone from not knowing what to do about developments in cross-strait relations to letting Chen rejoin. Now it is plain for all to see that the main contest between the nation’s two main parties is which of them is the most complacent.
Just as Ma is not worried about seething resentment, the DPP does not care about its lack of a clear ethical stand. Since both parties have lost the will to engage in introspection, Taiwan’s democracy will for the time being be mired in political rivalry of the shoddiest kind.
Julian Kuo is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Julian Clegg