Former president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) indictment on corruption charges yesterday led political allies to react with both surprise and dismay, raising claims about political retribution against the outspoken critic of the current administration.
Prosecutors accuse the 88-year-old, still highly respected in government circles, and a former top aide of siphoning money from a secret diplomatic fund to help set up a private think tank during his presidency from 1988 to 2000.
The charges, announced by prosecutors in a high-profile morning press conference, come at a sensitive time. The presidential and legislative elections are seven months away and Lee is seen as a father figure to many in the pro-independence camp.
The Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), which Lee helped to establish in 2000, immediately dismissed the allegations as a smear campaign designed to discredit the former president and his supporters.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was more cautious.
“The allegations show that President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) re-election campaign must be in dire straits,” TSU Chairman Huang Kun-huei (黃昆輝) said. “It’s an obvious attempt to use the judiciary to incite political strife.”
Huang and DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the party’s presidential nominee, are expected to appear with Lee at a previously scheduled fundraiser tonight.
DPP spokesperson Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁) said the judiciary should demonstrate caution to avoid creating the impression that it is politically biased, given the current political environment. Chen also emphasized the DPP’s lack of involvement in the case.
Lee was the chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) at the time of the alleged offenses, as well as being elected president, Chen said.
“We hope the judiciary can take a consistent look at the past 50 years of KMT administration, all the way up to Lee, and determine whether all cases of potential misuses of secret government funds have been properly handled,” he said.
As the nation’s first democratically elected president, Lee counts as allies both pan-blue and pan-green politicians stretching from his time as an up-and-coming KMT official. His political stance gradually shifted toward pro-Taiwanese independence.
One sign of his widespread appeal was at a birthday celebration in January, when Lee welcomed Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) and senior politicians from both the KMT and the DPP. Ma was the only key political figure left off the guest list.
DPP lawmakers were more outspoken about the case in the legislature.
DPP Legislator Gao Jyh-peng (高志鵬) called it a sign of “selective processing” given that many other senior politicians have also faced allegations that they misused secret government funds.
“The courts are owned by the KMT, exemplified by the case we see here,” Gao said.
DPP caucus chief Ker Chien-ming (柯建銘) said the court case could potentially affect the January elections and the DPP’s cooperation with the TSU, which identifies Lee as its spiritual leader.
However, KMT Legislator Lu Hsueh-chang (呂學樟) urged the public to respect the judicial process.
“If the defendant is innocent, I’m sure the judiciary will clear his name,” he said.
Presidential Office spokesman Fan Chiang Tai-chi (范姜泰基) said the office would not comment on any ongoing cases.