2012 ELECTIONS: US Congress to watch elections ‘closely’

ON GUARD::Senior US politicians said in Washington they would help protect Taiwan’s democracy against any interference, especially from ‘the red dragon across the Strait’

By William Lowther  /  Staff Reporter in Washington

Sat, Dec 03, 2011 - Page 1

US House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has warned that the US Congress will be watching Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections “very closely” to guard against any interference.

At a Washington conference on Thursday she also revealed that her committee might hold hearings after the Jan. 14 elections to assess their fairness.

Ros-Lehtinen said that civil libertarians had expressed increased concern about backsliding within Taiwan’s democracy and that the conference was being held to help ensure a poll “unmarred by outside interference of any kind.”

She said that Taiwan was a model for democracy and the rule of law in East Asia, but that the “red dragon across the [Taiwan] Strait” sought to influence the electoral outcome.

Ros-Lehtinen told the conference: “For that and other reasons, my colleagues in Congress and I will be watching the conduct of these elections very closely. We wish to assure that Taiwan remains that vital beacon of democracy shining as a bright light across the Taiwan Strait to the imprisoned people of China.”

“And our other allies in Asia know full well that our commitment to democracy in the Pacific is most tested by the degree of our commitment to democracy in Taiwan,” she added.

“Thus, we in Washington must remain vigilant to uncover any signs of the continued attempts by Beijing to bully Taiwan or to again interfere with its electoral process,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

The conference, held in the US Capitol building, was organized by the Los Angeles-based Formosa Foundation.

The foundation’s executive director, Terri Giles, said that it was “highly significant” that four members of Congress had found time to address the conference on what turned out to be one of the busiest legislative days of the year, with at least seven separate hearings under way.

She said the attendance of so many senior staff members also reflected the “huge interest” by Capitol Hill in the Taiwanese elections.

Giles said: “We must send a clear message to those who would try and suppress the will of the people of Taiwan that the government of the US fully supports their right to choose their own leaders.”

US Representative Howard Berman, a California democrat, said there was concern that the four-month transition period following the election could present “some challenges to the process of a peaceful transfer of power between outgoing President Ma [Ying-jeou (馬英九)] and the incoming president-elect if Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Dr Tsai [Ing-wen (蔡英文)] were to win.”

“We will be watching to see if Beijing tries to meddle in this process, either by pressuring the lame-duck administration for any concessions or taking a strident or hostile stance toward the incoming president,” he added.

Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican, said: “Taiwan’s democratic transformation is a legacy to be proud of. But like anywhere else, it’s one that needs constant protection. We have to safeguard our gains in democracy and human rights, taking nothing for granted.”

“In any country, democracy or not, there is a tendency to try to stifle debate, shutdown political opponents. This is wrong. If the government strays from its principles, it’s our responsibility to help the Taiwanese stand up for free elections and free speech — keeping Taiwan honest to its democratic legacy,” he said.

Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio called Taiwan a “marvel of maturing democracy,” but also said there were concerns about fairness in the election.

He said the US would work with whoever was elected and he would continue to push for Taiwan’s full membership in the WHO and the UN.

Carolyn Bartholomew of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission said the presence of members of Congress and of Congressional staff at the conference was a sure sign of the importance placed on Taiwan.

“Taiwan sets the stage and tone for democracy in Asia,” Bartholomew said.

A former Taiwanese representative to the US, Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), said that Taiwan’s democracy was “young and fragile” and that it still contained signs of past authoritarianism, particularly in the way the government handled the media and judiciary.

Over the past three years, he said, there had been some retreating of democracy and it was now vital for the US to do everything in its power to ensure free and fair elections in the country.

According to Wu, an international committee including former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), former presidential adviser Peng Ming-min (彭明敏) and other heavyweights from the US, Japan and other countries would officially be established on Dec. 15 to keep a close eye on the presidential and legislative elections next month.

It would also observe the four-month transition period after the elections to ensure a smooth transfer of power he said.

Additional reporting by Nadia Tsao