Taiwan’s democratic test continues
By Christopher Walker Sarah CookTuesday, Feb 17, 2009, Page 8
Since shedding authoritarian rule two decades ago, Taiwan has achieved commendable progress in democracy. On a recent visit, however, it was clear that while democracy continues to flourish, a number of serious concerns have arisen that threaten to shake public confidence in the country’s democratic institutions.
Our meetings with senior officials of both major political parties, as well as leaders of Taiwan’s diverse non-governmental organizations and academic community, revealed a palpable sense that the political system is becoming less transparent and more exclusive.
Several developments have triggered alarms among Taiwan’s civil society and international observers.
First, the judicial system’s impartiality and ability to hold the current government to account has come into question. The restoration of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to full political control in the aftermath of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) decisive victory in last year’s elections — along with an overwhelming legislative majority for his party — has weakened important checks and balances that had been in place over the previous eight years.
In the months since the KMT retook control, a spate of investigations have been launched against former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials and businesspeople connected to it. The apparent imbalance with which these cases are being pursued raises concerns of selective justice. One prominent lawyer in Taipei describes the phenomenon as a “judicial recession.”
Further exacerbating tension is the country’s politicized, tabloid-style news media, especially the use of certain outlets to discredit (would-be) defendants before they have their day in court. Six 24-hour cable news channels — four KMT-aligned and two favoring the DPP — pump out a steady diet of over-the-top coverage of political and legal scandal. A robust flow of leaks enables a pernicious form of “trial by media” for those pulled into the judicial vortex.
These phenomena came to a head in two recent cases. The first is that of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). The ultimate decision on the former president’s guilt or innocence will be decided by the courts, as it should be. However, the judicial process requires the utmost scrupulousness to ensure there is neither the fact nor perception of political interference. So far, such care has been lacking. A slipshod switching of judges just before year’s end and a grossly impolitic skit mocking the former president — during a party organized by Ministry of Justice officials — have raised eyebrows at home and abroad about the seriousness of the officials entrusted with handling this sensitive case.
The second case involves the investigation into clashes between police and citizens protesting Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin’s (陳雲林) visit to Taiwan in November. During this historic visit, more than 100 demonstrators and police were injured. Other citizens have complained of official harassment in response to peaceful acts of protest.
The National Police Agency undertook one review shortly after the event, which resulted in mild discipline, followed, incongruously, by promotions of several key officers. It apparently has undertaken a second more comprehensive internal review, but those findings have not been made public. (按: 好幾個涉嫌暴力的警察在之後湊巧得到晉升也被提出來討論了,之前我就提過了啊)
The Control Yuan is undertaking its own investigation, but the extent to which its findings will be made public is unclear. Perplexingly, the process of such an investigation, or even whether it is taking place at all, remains unknown to even the most well-informed members of Taiwan’s civil society, let alone the public-at-large.
Given the increasing unease with the trajectory of democratic governance in Taiwan, several immediate steps by the authorities to enhance transparency would help lay such concerns to rest.
Comprehensive reports and regular status updates should be published of any investigations carried out by key government bodies, including the Control Yuan, the police and other agencies, irrespective of the political orientation of their subjects.
The authorities should also make a dedicated effort to stop the debilitating cycle of leaks from criminal investigations. Ma and relevant senior officials must make clear that any information improperly dispensed by prosecutors, investigators or any other judicial or law enforcement body will not be tolerated.
Finally, as the current administration makes decisions that will affect generations of Taiwanese to come — particularly in its sensitive cross-Strait negotiations — it should take an inclusive and open posture toward the public. The combination of closed-door talks with the Chinese Communist Party and a dismissive attitude regarding citizen complaints of official abuse risks creating an atmosphere of highhandedness within government and alienation outside it.
Several developments in recent weeks — including a Council of Grand Justices’ decision on the unconstitutionality of recording client-lawyer conversations and the Control Yuan’s public criticism of prosecutorial leaks — are encouraging signs that Taiwan’s self-correcting democratic mechanisms are functioning. Concerns remain, however, over the evenhandedness with which standards of accountability are being applied.
Taiwan has established itself as a democracy whose significance extends far beyond its shores. In a region where the ideals of democracy are directly challenged, fundamental principles of transparency and pluralism need particularly vigorous safeguarding. The current era of closer relations with China’s government, known more for secretiveness and intolerance of dissent than for democratic governance, make these standards even more important for Taiwan.
Christopher Walker is director of studies and Sarah Cook is an Asia researcher at Freedom House.