Although some foreign media on Saturday referred to the life sentences handed to former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and his wife, Wu Shu-jen (吳淑珍), as “unexpectedly stiff,” to quote the Los Angeles Times, anyone who has paid close attention to politics in Taiwan since the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regained power last year would see this as an inevitable outcome.
From the very beginning, the handling of Chen’s corruption trial was marred by political meddling in the form of gerrymandering within the judiciary, leaks to the media, guilt by association and presumption of guilt. The fact that the former president was kept in jail for almost nine months for no legal reason also serves to highlight the fact that expectations of a fair trial were naive.
While a case could be made that the sentences were to teach a lesson or, as the Apple Daily editorialized, to “serve as a warning for all parties and politicians,” it is difficult to imagine that a similar ruling would have been made, or the handling of the trial so objectionable, had the political environment been different.
First of all, Chen, whom Beijing referred to as the “scum of the nation,” spearheaded the independence movement in Taiwan by carrying the torch lit by former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), in the process taking the rhetoric to the next level. Regardless of whether his policies succeeded in taking Taiwan closer to official statehood, the fact remains that for Beijing, Chen served as a symbol of resentment and a convenient umbrella for the entire independence movement.
By muzzling him during his trial and giving him a life sentence, the Taiwanese judiciary was responding, if perhaps unwittingly, to the political needs of the KMT administration, which has sought to develop closer ties with Beijing. As a token of “goodwill,” Beijing could not have asked for a sweeter gift.
One reason why the trial could become so overtly politicized, or the ruling so harsh, is the ineffectiveness and fecklessness of the opposition movement, which has been divided against itself (partly as a result of the case against Chen) and has therefore been unable to challenge the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration with one voice. So weakened has the opposition become, both in the legislature and in public opinion, that Ma has been able to ignore public apprehensions about his other pet project — cross-strait policies — going as far as to snub an otherwise legal request for a referendum on the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China. The best that Ma and his team of cross-strait negotiators has been able to provide in terms of answers has bordered on an article of faith, which in effect conceals resentment toward public opinion.
A more unified opposition would have forced the Ma administration not only to take more seriously the apprehensions of the public (including many in the pan-blue camp) vis-a-vis an ECFA, but equally could have ensured a fairer trial for Chen. If, as has been the case, the Ma administration can so manifestly disregard public fears over policies that will have a substantial impact on the future of this nation, it follows that making a “gift” of a harsh sentence against an individual who stood up to Beijing would be relatively easy.
There is no doubt that in its calculations, the judiciary and its masters took the potential for backlash against a severe ruling against Chen and his wife into consideration. Had they feared that a severe ruling, or even signs of unfairness, would be detrimental to their ability to remain in power, or that it would serve as the spark that allows this fissiparous opposition to coalesce into a coherent movement, political intervention would have verged in the opposite direction; in other words, the Ma administration would have pressured the judiciary to ensure a lighter verdict, likely in the name of social stability.
Fears that Taiwan is turning into an authoritarian state are premature, but there is no denying that when the opposition is discredited, disorganized and easily discounted by those in power, the judiciary will yield to the political preferences of those at the top, especially in charged political environments like Taiwan. As such, the key to Taiwan’s future lies as much in the hands of a healthy opposition as in those of the officials who hold the reins of power.
The need is all the more pressing in Taiwan, for behind the KMT officials and members of the Ma administration, who are slowly becoming intoxicated by the sweet nectar of quasi-absolute power, lies a far more dangerous entity that is far less restrained in its actions. If Taiwan is to survive as a democracy, it will need to deal with its problems at home before it’s too late. This starts with an opposition that can be taken seriously and whose voice cannot be ignored, one that is credible enough to serve as a brake on those who would ride roughshod over what remains the best — though by no means perfect — political system we have to deal with conflicting interests.
We need voices that can promise consequences if the government continues to show signs that it wants to overreach.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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