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Chen shui-bian

Update No: 033 - (07/11/06)

A tightening noose around the President
Taiwan's president has had a difficult month and it does not look as though the worst is over. A consummate politician, Mr. Chen has weathered a number of storms in the past but this time the storm signals appear to be racheting upward. Now it is not only the opposition that is calling for Mr. Chen to step aside (or, in parliamentary parlance "to be recalled"), it appears that some within his own party may be starting to consider that enough is enough.
It has been a bad year for President Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party - an opposition party that was swept into power in 2000 ending more than a half century of rule by the Kuomintang party. But if "swept" into power is the right term to use, it was not so much a landslide victory that won him the presidency but rather a split in the KMT ahead of that election that shattered the conservative vote, almost down the middle. Mr. Chen emerged the clear victor in a three-horse race but by no means did he have majority support. 
Over the course of the past decade Taiwan has gone from a single party state to a two-party state and now to a multi-party one. It looks increasingly likely that future governments of Taiwan may be coalition in nature and with the conservatives likely to continue to hold the balance of power within the legislature no matter who wins the presidency and forms the government. This is the case at present.
But even the term "conservative" may sound somewhat pejorative in a political environment where the spectrum of political views remains rather narrow and with both sides, on many issues, haggling over the middle ground. There is only one issue that really divides people in any fundamental way and it is that of China. On the "left" are the "radicals" those who want Taiwan to declare independence, rewrite the Constitution and to rejoin the United Nations as the "Republic of Taiwan". On the "right" are the "conservatives" those who believe that Taiwan is, was and ever shall be part of China (although not necessarily part of the Peoples Republic) and who want to preserve Taiwan as part of China. Between them are the "masses", the ordinary people who want the problem to go away and for the status quo to be maintained. Of course, these people are the pragmatists but sadly, their platform is not given to those who would grandstand for political reasons.
President Chen is a radical. During the 1980s as a young lawyer under martial law he fought for the democratisation of Taiwan. He played a major role in the evolution of the Democratic Progressive Party from an illegal political movement to the point that by 2000 it had become the government of the island. But Mr. Chen never had any love at all for China. Born to a poor Taiwanese family, he experienced first-hand the tyranny of the KMT during the martial law period. For a time he was imprisoned and his wife Wu Shu-chen was run over by a runaway truck, an accident that left her paralysed from the waist down and wheel-chair bound ever since. That at least is the official version. What has never been properly explained was how the runaway truck managed to stop, and then reverse over the prostrate Mrs. Chen and then over her again before it sped off. The driver was never caught.
The point of this is that President Chen has impressive credentials to lead the Island. He has not only "talked the talk" but he has also "walked the walk" and sometimes painfully so. For this he earned the respect not only of the populace but also of many of his opponents in politics as well. But times change, the world moves on. President Chen appears to many people to be stuck in a time warp of his own making. He has been one of the most outspoken against the Chinese mainland and had taken every opportunity to goad the Beijing leadership. He has played the policy of brinkmanship to the hilt. To its credit, Beijing has not taken the bait but has played a waiting game. It has steadfastly refused to deal with Mr. Chen and other DPP officials who openly advocate a formal break from China and has been content to let things run their course. After all, Mr. Chen has to step down in 2008 at the end of his second term and cannot stand for re-election.
Increasingly it is looking as though his demise could come earlier. Mr. Chen may have made the fatal mistake of having outlived his usefulness and now his transgressions are catching up with him. 
The DPP has been in trouble for some time now. Rocked by a series of corruption scandals that started last year in Kaohsiung and which cost the then Premier, Frank Hsieh, his job, the problems have not receded but instead the corruption trail has got ever closer to the President. Just weeks ago his son-in-law was imprisoned for insider trading.
Now, after months of speculation and official denials of any wrongdoing, Mrs. Wu Shu-chen has been indicted by Taipei prosecutors on charges that she embezzled official funds. She is charged with embezzlement, document forgery and perjury. Prosecutors claim they have evidence that would incriminate Mr. Chen also but under Taiwan's Constitution sitting presidents are immune from prosecution. Three of his aides have also been charged.
The indictments follow a month long investigation into the alleged misuse of a secret state fund used to finance Taiwan's "diplomatic" initiatives - money paid to foreign governments to thwart China's efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally. It is alleged that Mrs. Wu took US$450,000 from the fund between 2002 and 2006 and failed to account for how the funds were spent. Mr. Chen has claimed that state secrets and the lives of Taiwan's covert field agents prevent him from revealing how those funds were used.
President Chen is adamant so far that he will not step down until such time as his wife is convicted. Perhaps this is a reasonable position to take in Taiwan's politically charged environment. After all "innocent until proven guilty" is a widely held axiom (although not one entirely accepted under Taiwan's legal code) and for President Chen to step down now would only benefit the opposition. After all there are plenty within the rival pan-Blue camp who have been plotting to oust Mr. Chen from the day he took office and there are a few skeletons in their closet also. Better then to tough it out or at least try to do so.
But the political battles are taking their toll. For all intense and purposes, policy-making has been in a state of paralysis. The danger now is that the rift that has been apparent in DPP ranks in recent months will turn into a schism. While the official party line is to unite behind President Chen, some lawmakers appear to favour him stepping aside, even temporarily until the scandal is resolved one way or another.
Twice already the Opposition has sought to use its majority in the Legislative Yuan - Taiwan's parliament - to force through a recall motion. It failed because the opposition has only a slim majority and could not muster the two-thirds vote needed for the motion to prosper. There is now talk of a third attempt at recall and this time they just might make it. If the opposition does decide to initiate its third recall motion and if the Taiwan Solidarity Union and just 12 DPP lawmakers decide to break ranks and side with the opposition, this would spell the end of his presidency.
Mr. Chen's position is in a difficult one. He is between the rock and the hard place.
If he decides to stay on he will probably scupper any hope the DPP have for next month's mayoral elections. In addition, we can look forward to several more months of political showboating and legislative deadlock, (although the truth is that this would have been the case regardless of the prosecutor's findings).
In the long term, Chen's decision to hang on to office will hurt the DPP and possibly affect the party's candidate for the 2008 presidential election, as the pan-blues will exploit the situation to taint the DPP as a party that approves of corruption.
But stepping down before any trial would be tantamount to an admission of guilt. Mr. Chen would, to use his own words, be committing "political suicide." He would also deal a huge victory to the pro-China camp, as it would be surrender to the pan-blue media's war of attrition and their long-standing campaign to deal a fatal blow to both Chen and the Taiwanisation movement that he champions.
On the other hand, stepping down would put the onus on the pan-blues to work with the new government, and if they refused to do so, then the public would once again see that the last six years of pan-blue obstructionism has had nothing to do with who was occupying the presidency.
There is no easy answer to this one.

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