Thu, Mar 04, 2004 - Page 3 News List

`Black gold' rises sharply

REUTERS , TAIPEI

Taiwan is investigating 800 cases of suspected vote-buying in the run-up to the March 20 presidential election, more than double the number of cases in the election four years ago, officials said yesterday.

Officials declined to say if the cases were linked to the campaign of incumbent President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) or his rival, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Lien Chan (連戰). No incident has yet to reach the prosecution stage.

The Ministry of Justice had received 804 reports linked to cases of vote-buying by Tuesday compared with a total of 355 cases in the whole of the last presidential election in 2000.

"We expect the number to jump before the election," a ministry official told reporters.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see the number surpassing 1,000 or even more. As the election draws closer and the competition intensifies, more cases will surface," said the official, who declined to be identified.

The higher number may not indicate an increase in political corruption -- known locally as "black gold" -- but could just reflect a greater willingness to report such incidents, he said.

Recent figures show vote-buying has not improved significantly since Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took office in 2000.

Vowing to eradicate political graft, Chen ended more than 50 years of rule by the KMT, one of the world's richest political parties, when he won the 2000 election.

Last year, Taiwan charged three quarters of the city council -- including members of both ruling and opposition parties -- in the island's second largest city of Kaohsiung in a vote-buying scandal that has tainted Taiwan's nascent democracy.

With mudslinging on the rise in the current campaign, Chen has been forced to go on the defensive amid accusations that both he and the KMT accepted illegal campaign contributions from former Tuntex Group chairman Chen Yu-hao (陳由豪), who has fled to the US to avoid charges.

Chen and Lien have attacked each other's integrity. Each is suing his opponent for libel, although the president has immunity from lawsuits.

The justice ministry has kicked off a series of television advertisements telling voters not to accept kickbacks and showing footage of people giving or receiving bribes being jailed.

Taiwan's 80,000-strong police force is helping with the crackdown. Informants can receive a reward of up to NT$15 million (US$449,000) if they give information leading to a conviction.

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