Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Kuomintang (KMT) lawmakers brawled in the Taiwanese legislature earlier this week over changes to Article 99-1 of the Accounting Act proposed by the DPP. What provoked ire was that the changes may clear former President Chen Shui-bian of corruption charges regarding the use of special expense funds when he was president.
Chen, who served as president from 2000 to 2008, was the first DPP president in Taiwanese history. Chen rose to prominence as a defense lawyer for the Kaohsiung Eight, who were political dissidents affiliated with Formosa Magazine who were arrested by the KMT for a demonstration to mark International Human Rights Day in 1979. The incident is remembered as one of the key moments in Taiwan’s democratization, with many members of the Kaohsiung Eight later going on to be founding members of the DPP in 1986.
The late Chen presidency, however, was marked by scandal. Apart from allegations that Chen had used special expense funds (also referred to as the “state affairs fund”) for personal gain, Chen was accused of bribery over the appointment of the chair of the Taipei Financial Center Corporation and a land deal in Longtan, Taoyuan. Consequently, there were widespread protests against Chen, which included not only demonstrations organized by the KMT, but former allies turning on him. Even so, Chen had his defenders, who viewed the charges against him as political retaliation by the KMT against Taiwan’s first non-KMT president.
With corruption charges against Chen damaging the reputation of the DPP as a whole, Chen’s successor as president was Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, which returned to power. After leaving office, Chen was initially sentenced to life imprisonment, but the sentence was reduced to 19 years.
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In January 2015, Chen was released on medical parole on the condition that he refrain from making political statements or appearances. Chen has tried to push back against this restriction, however, particularly once the Tsai administration took power in 2016 as the second DPP presidential administration. Besides running a Facebook page that offered political commentary under the name of his deceased pet dog, Chen later started a radio show that he claimed would avoid political topics.
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The charges of misuse of government funds are still a sticking point for Chen, with Chen accused of misusing 104 million New Taiwan dollars for his own gain. In April of this year, Chen held a press conference, showing evidence that he claimed showed that 21 payments were made for NT$133 million, and these payments were used for diplomatic purposes, rather than personal gain. The press conference led to a warning from prison authorities, though the odds of Chen being put back into jail under Tsai are low. Chen responded that the legal case regarding these payments was under its second retrial at the Taiwan High Court.
Interestingly, Article 99-1 of the Accounting Act was originally promulgated by the KMT in 2011, clearing officials of crimes regarding the misuse of special funds before December 31, 2006. At the time, the changes were criticized as an attempt to clear then-president Ma of charges regarding the use of such funds dating from his period as Taipei mayor from 2000 to 2008, as well as to clear the records of other KMT legislators accused of corruption, such as then-legislator Yen Ching-piao, who is widely known for organized crime ties.
Nevertheless, Article 99-1 of the Accounting Act excluded the president in the purview of officials cleared of misuse, with the pan-Green camp taking the view that this was to avoid the changes exonerating Chen but not having enough legislators in office to push for this. It was only in 2016 that the DPP held the absolute majority in the legislature for the first time, as also the first time that a non-KMT party held the majority.
For its part, the DPP has asserted that special expense funds under the president were the same as for other officials under the purview of Article 99-1 of the Accounting Act, which the KMT has denied. The amendments passed by 57 in support against 32 in opposition, with zero abstentions.
In order to try and prevent the changes from passing, the KMT occupied the podium of the legislature, and later threw bottles and fake money at DPP legislators, so as to allege corruption. A stray water bottle damaged the Sun Yat-sen portrait behind the podium and three DPP legislators were later found to be COVID-positive, leading to speculation as to whether members of the pan-Blue camp who were tussling with them could be at risk from COVID.
Chen has not been cleared of all charges, as he still faces bribery charges. Nevertheless, even if the charges against Chen led to widespread protest over a decade, it is to be questioned whether the DPP’s recent actions provoke broader outrage from the public, as the public may be focused on COVID-19 at present. Indeed, the KMT’s framing of the issue was indicative, in that the KMT did not focus purely on the issue of corruption but framed the DPP as more concerned with getting Chen off the hook than passing laws to prevent child deaths from COVID-19.
But despite the fact that the Tsai administration is increasingly taking heat for the rising number of COVID cases in Taiwan, the KMT’s overall political position may still be weak. On the other hand, third parties such as pan-Green NPP and pan-Blue TPP have both been critical of the DPP’s actions.
Chen, who coincidentally was reported to be COVID-positive the subsequent day, has stated that he welcomed the amendments and the retrospective acquittal they entail. He compared the acquittal to being cleared of accusations from the KMT during the authoritarian period. His son, DPP Kaohsiung city councilor Chen Chih-chung, was also among the voices that welcomed the changes to the law.
The DPP may have its eyes on improving relations with the deep Green wing of the party, which still holds Chen in positive regard. Tsai previously faced a revolt from the deep Greens in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential elections, with deep Greens seeing Tsai as having not done enough to advocate for Taiwanese independence. Such deep Greens also disapproved of Tsai’s legalization of gay marriage and sometimes voiced dissatisfaction with having a female president.
Tsai’s current vice president, William Lai, was favored by the deep Greens to replace Tsai as the DPP’s 2020 presidential candidate. Though Tsai was successful in fending off Lai’s challenge and later named him vice president, Lai is seen as a contender for the DPP’s 2024 presidential nomination, and the deep Greens still seem to view him in a positive light. While Tsai herself has to date shrugged off calls from deep Greens to pardon Chen, actions by the DPP legislative caucus may be aimed at extending an olive branch to the deep Greens, to consolidate the pan-Green camp ahead of upcoming elections.