2012 ELECTIONS: INTERVIEW: Peng Ming-min talks about need for fair election

Peng Ming-min, chairman of the International Committee for Fair Elections in Taiwan, which was established with the aim of monitoring next month’s elections, in an interview with ‘Taipei Times’ staff reporter Huang Tai-lin, on Friday, cited the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ as an example of why the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) should not abuse the power of government to influence the outcome of the election

Mon, Dec 26, 2011 - Page 3

Taipei Times: Since 1996 Taiwan has held four direct presidential elections. What is so special about next month’s election that you felt the need to establish this committee?

Peng Ming-min (彭明敏): This time is special because the presidential election is being held in tandem with the legislative elections. In light of the KMT government’s attitude toward China these past four years, not just us, but many in the international community feel this election could have a critical impact on Taiwan’s future.

Taiwan’s overall environment and historical milieu make the holding of a fair election particularly difficult. There is this party [the KMT] that is one of the richest political parties in the world — how it accumulated that wealth is beside the point here — the thing is that its enormous wealth poses a threat to the holding of a fair election in Taiwan. Also, given 50 year of authoritarian rule, it is not unreasonable to ask whether that mentality has gone for good or whether it remains in one form or another? As a matter of fact, some international observers such as Freedom House have said that democracy in Taiwan has regressed, hence we are very concerned about whether the elections will be fair. Also, the general impression among Taiwanese is that the judiciary is not very impartial or fair. All these are sources of concerns, and very legitimate ones, if I may add.

In addition, when we speak of the election, we are referring not just to the voting, but also the period before and after election day. Many people have expressed -concern about the four-month transition period [before the presidential inauguration on May 20]. If the KMT remains in power [after the Jan. 14 presidential election], then such concern would be minimal, but if another political party wins the election, then the four-month period gives rise to many worries. In fact, such a long transitional period [spanning several months] is very abnormal and I am unaware of such a situation existing in any other country.

The committee was established by about 20 people and it has received a very positive response from more than 100 prominent individuals who have expressed an interest in taking part. Such people recognize that this election will have a critical impact on Taiwan’s future and are keen to ensure a free and fair election is held.

Speaking of which, I would like to thank the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, chaired by Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) [a KMT member], for identifying with the appeal for a fair election and making a donation to the committee.

What we wish to stress here is that the committee does not support one candidate over another, but rather demands a fair election. Fairness is the basic minimum requirement for any democracy, and without it Taiwan’s fragile democracy would find itself in a miserable state.

TT: Some have criticized the committee as being predominantly made up of members who are -generally considered sympathetic to the pan-green camp. How would you respond to that?

Peng: In any country, those demanding a fair election tend to be associated with the political opposition. Ruling parties do not really concern themselves with such things because being in power they are the ones most likely to employ unfair methods [in elections].

Some people when they look at the committee’s members, might well say that most are sympathetic toward the Democratic Progressive Party [DPP], but that’s because the party in power is most likely to abuse power.

Inevitably then, those concerned about the issue of a fair election are the opposition parties. In other words, it is perfectly understandable why so many members on the committee are opposition figures.

Although each committee member has his or her own political stance, I must stress that the committee, as a whole, is neutral and non-partisan, what it seeks is a fair election.

TT: Others have pointed out that the inclusion of foreigners on the committee is like telling tales out of school. What is your response to that?

Peng: The UN frequently sends groups to observe elections in a wide range of countries. Issues pertaining to democracy and human rights are a matter of international concern, which makes it perfectly natural for there to be foreign members of the committee who are interested in Taiwan.

TT: One of the committee’s objectives is listed as “opposing any interference from external forces.” Could you elaborate on what has given rise to such concerns?

Peng: If a Japanese official or a US official invited Taiwanese for meals and then asked them to support a particular candidate or a party [back in Taiwan], would that be acceptable? And yet China has been doing exactly that — which is very unusual in terms of democracy.

Certain officials in China have openly invited people eligible to vote in Taiwan for meals and encouraged them to support a particular candidate and party — such things should simply not be happening.

As an individual, if I say I want such and such a Japanese candidate to get elected, that’s okay because it falls under freedom of expression. However, if an official in Taiwan invites Japanese voters to a banquet and asks them to vote for a certain Japanese candidate when they return home, that would be unacceptable.

The US Department of State, in a response [on Thursday] to US Senator Sherrod Brown’s letter, replied that the US government would not endorse any particular candidate or party. It added in its response that “the US government does not believe any one party or leader on Taiwan has a monopoly on effective management of the US-Taiwan relationship.”

TT: Speaking of the US, the American Institute in Taiwan [AIT] on Thursday announced that Taiwan had been nominated for inclusion in the US’ Visa Waiver Program (VWP). As the KMT was quick to claim credit for the announcement, some at home and abroad have said the decision constituted an effort by the US government to interfere in Taiwan’s elections as a show of support for President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) re-election bid. What is your view on the timing of the AIT’s announcement?

Peng: No one but the US Department of State knows what its real intent is [in making the announcement at this time] was.

However, the VWP issue should not be touted as the accomplishment of a particular administration. Taiwan qualified for inclusion in the VWP because it has over time met the standards established by the US, for example by having less than a certain percentage of visas refused and a low rate of crimes committed by Taiwanese [while traveling in the US] etc. The announcement was not the result of the KMT government negotiating and fighting for it. Taiwan getting the VWP nomination should be seen as something achieved by Taiwanese collectively.

TT: Earlier you mentioned that there are some concerns over the four-month transitional period. What are some of the possible problems you envisage?

Peng: It’s hard to say, but, for example, if the margin of victory turns out to be small, and the Central Election Committee delays an announcement on who the president-elect is, then people might protest. One other question is how the KMT would govern in that four-month period in the event that it lost the election. Again, this is just a “what if” scenario, there are many possibilities as to what might happen, which is exactly why we need to keep a watchful eye.

In any election, there are always winners and losers. The losers should demonstrate democratic spirit, respect the result; and where the outcome is contested, appeal in accordance with the laws and not resort to violence or the creation of social disorder.

The establishment of the committee seeks to focus the attention of the world on Taiwan and also highlights that many in the international community are genuinely interested and concerned about developments in Taiwan and whether its elections are fair. Hopefully all political parties will realize that nothing can be hidden from view because the world is watching.

TT: In the event that the results of the Jan. 14 elections are contested, what role do you expect the committee to play?

Peng: Until it happens, we do not know what might occur so we will have to see.

People in general have a lack of confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary and are concerned about whether the KMT will abuse administrative and judicial power.

I think the KMT should have paid close attention to the “Jasmine Revolution” in North Africa and the Middle East and hopefully realizes that if a government does things that are unbearable for the people, that can lead to the build up of popular resentment.

TT: Do you think the KMT should perhaps make some sort of public pledge in view of the concerns many have about the four-month window before the change in government?

Peng: If I were a KMT member, I’d very much hope [Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate] Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) would ask President Ma, as KMT chairman, to pledge that the transfer of power from the KMT to the DPP, in the event of a DPP win, would be peaceful. I find it regrettable that she hasn’t already asked that question because people have a lack of confidence in the KMT, especially in the wake of the recent “Yu Chang case” [in which the KMT allegedly altered documents used to smear Tsai].