Coincidences, Coincidences in TainanAn absurd vote buying case in the southern city threatens the fabric of Taiwan’s democracy
The Ministry of Justice announced today (Aug. 10) that three Tainan prosecutors and a spokesperson for the prosecutors’ office are to be reassigned as part of what it called a “routine” rotation. Regular though such personnel changes may be, the move is nevertheless rather convenient for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), as all three prosecutors had been investigating alleged vote buying by Tainan City Council Speaker Lee Chuan-chiao (李全教) of the KMT in the Dec. 25, 2014, speakership election.
But hey, coincidences do happen.
It’s also probably a coincidence that the announcement comes one week after the Control Yuan voted to impeach Tainan Mayor William Lai (賴清德) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for “gross negligence” resulting from his refusal to attend city council meetings and Q&As. Following the 7-2 decision on Aug. 4, the Control Yuan referred the case to the Judicial Yuan’s Commission on the Disciplinary Sanctions of Public Functionaries. At its harshest, the Commission could decide to strip Lai of his post.
A recap is in order to fully appreciate the preposterousness of the situation. Lai was re-elected mayor in the Nov. 29, 2014, nine-in-one elections with 72.9% of the vote. With 29 of the 57 seats in the city council, Lai understandably approached the Dec. 25 city council speaker elections with confidence.
And yet, with only 16 seats, the KMT beat the DPP 29-26, which was mathematically impossible. Thus Lee was in, and incumbent Lai Mei-hui (賴美惠) was out.
Less than 48 hours later, it was announced that five DPP members had voted for the KMT after allegedly being offered large sums of money (up to NT$10 million, or US$316,000), in some cases via China. Some of them were repeat offenders. On Dec. 31, Tainan prosecutors charged Lee, who had already been implicated in vote buying in the Nov. 29 elections in which he secured a council seat, for corruption. He was charged taken in by prosecutors on Feb. 8 as he was about to board a flight for China.
Lee was released on NT$15 million bail on April 2, after serving nearly two months in jail. Besides Lee, Tainan City Council member Kuo Hsiu-chu (郭秀珠) and six other people were indicted on charges of vote buying.
After his release from jail, Lee resumed his position as city council speaker, as if nothing had happened. Feeling that his presence would legitimize Lee’s fraudulently obtained position, Lai decided he would not attend the council meetings until the case was closed.
Whether Lai’s decision was warranted or not is debatable. Some of his critics argue that by taking the law into his own hands, Lai has been judge, jury and executioner. Others have also pointed to Lai’s tendency to make unilateral decisions without consulting DPP central, which in some instances has caused trouble for the party. Conversely, Lai’s supporters point out that by attending the meeting, Lai would have given Lee a stamp of approval and allowed Lee to keep the position while the case dragged in the courts.
Regardless of the merits of his decision, the highly popular Lai now faces censure or removal from office for refusing to play along with an overt attack on democratic procedure by the KMT, which stole the speakership position by buying votes and whose candidate for the position had likely become a commissioner through similar tactics. But as Nathan Batto observed recently, the Control Yuan, which is stacked with pro-KMT members and only seems interested in targeting DPP members, doesn’t care about such details. The criminal has turned the tables. It’s a bit like a court deciding to jail a man for breaking into a neighbor’s house…to prevent a murder.
Interestingly, the Control Yuan member who initiated the impeachment against Mayor Lai is one Zhang Kuei-mei (仉桂美), a former candidate for the pro-unification New Party.
But that, too, is just a coincidence.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.