Although some foreign media on Saturday referred to the life sentences handed to former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and his wife, Wu Shu-jen (吳淑珍), as “unexpectedly stiff,” to quote the LA 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 almost inevitable outcome.
From the very beginning, the handling of Chen’s trial over allegations of corruption has been marred by political meddling in the form of gerrymandering within the judiciary, leaks to the media and guilt by association. The fact that the former president was kept in jail for almost 10 months for no valid reason also serves to highlight the fact that expectations of a fair trial were all along unfounded.
While a case could be made that the harsh 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 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 ever succeeded in taking Taiwan closer to official statehood, the fact remains that for Beijing, Chen came to serve as a symbol of resentment and umbrella for the entire pro-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 more.
One reason why the trial could become so overtly politicized, or the ruling been so harsh, is the ineffectiveness and fecklessness of the entire opposition movement, which has been divided against itself (for no small part as a result of the case against Chen) and has therefore been unable to challenge to 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 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 come up with in terms of answers has bordered on blind faith, which in effect concealed resentment for public opinion.
A more unified opposition would have forced the Ma administration not only to take more seriously the apprehensions of the public vis-à-vis an ECFA, but quite equally would have ensured a fairer trial for Chen. If, as has been the case, the Ma administration can so readily disregard public fears over policies that will undeniably 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 and earned its venom would also have been 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 harsh ruling would be detrimental to their ability to remain in power, or that it would serve as an incident that would allow the fissiparous opposition to coalesce into a coherent movement once again, 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.
Fears that Taiwan is slowly turning into an authoritarian state may be a little premature, but there is no denying that when the opposition is discredited, disorganized and easily discounted by those in power, the judiciary will inevitably yield to the political preferences of those at the top, especially in highly charged political environments such as the Taiwan Strait. As such, the key to Taiwan’s future as a healthy democracy lies as much in the hands of an opposition that will need to get back on its feet quickly as in those of the officials who currently 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, if perhaps unconsciously, with the sweet wine of authoritarianism, lies a far more dangerous entity that is far less restrained in its use of the swift knife. If Taiwan is to survive at all 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, with an opposition that is credible enough to serve as a brake on those who would otherwise ride roughshod on that which, to this day, remains the best — though by no means perfect — political system we have to deal with conflicting interests.
Put simply, we need voices that can promise consequences if the government overreaches, as it may have done on Friday.
A slightly diffferent version of this article appeared in the Taipei Times on Sept. 16,