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Taiwan deserves a clean campaign

Taiwan deserves a clean campaign

Clean government has been a popular call from politicians in Taiwan for decades, amid accusations of vote-buying, illegal wealth and shady business deals entwined with politics.
Even though political reforms took hold, direct presidential elections were introduced and the media were liberalized, the practices still seemed to survive, while several attempts at reform raised the hopes of voters only to founder a couple of years down the line.
In addition to the actual corruption involving cash and interests, another type of corruption, the corruption of language, has also deeply affected election campaigns in Taiwan, with often both sides and their representatives on prominent talk shows launching accusations against the other side.
As Democratic Progressive Party candidate Chen Shui-bian won the 2000 presidential election, his success was largely based on the hopes of voters for change after decades of Kuomintang rule. Another factor was the division of the ruling camp, where accusations of corruption were launched against breakaway candidate James Soong, while KMT contender Lien Chan was besieged with questions about how he had become wealthy while working in several government positions.
The close outcome of the 2004 election the day after an assassination attempt on Chen and Vice President Annette Lu provoked a new explosion of rumors about ballot-rigging, leading to months of massive demonstrations and conspiracy theories before a recount confirmed Chen’s re-election. The suspected author of the assassination attempt was found dead, again fueling more outlandish theories.
When Ma Ying-jeou was first elected president in 2008, his record as justice minister led people to believe he would take a tough stance on corruption, and while Chen and many senior members of his administration became embroiled in scandals that ended with jail terms, the new president’s KMT did not stay free from numerous scandals itself, involving a series of prominent figures from the Nantou County magistrate to a Cabinet official.
The 2012 presidential election campaign featured accusations that DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen had previously unfairly used her influence as a government member in a biotechnology company deal, accusations which were later again proven to be baseless.
While past elections always focused on “blue” vs. “green” confrontations, last year’s local elections saw the emergence of a new force, the staunchly independent “political novice” Ko Wen-je, the surgeon who ran for mayor of Taipei City.
He wanted to break the mould of Taiwanese politics and not join any political party so he could stand above the blue-green divisions. He wanted to bring people together across ideological lines in an effort to make the city government more efficient and more open to public participation.
While the novelty of Ko’s candidacy appealed to a large segment of the voting population as his electoral triumph would show, it did not change the basic style of campaigning from before.
Ko faced wild accusations about having at least facilitated potentially corrupt practices by having set up a special account at the National Taiwan University Hospital where he worked. Assertions that he only wanted to help out starting doctors and researchers did not prevent the accusations from continuing to fly.
However, they were followed by even wilder accusations that Ko might have been involved in the trading of organs from China, which was based on a vague understanding of an English-language book.
After campaign aides seemed to have found eavesdropping equipment at a policy office, allegations arose that the KMT might have reverted to Martial Law tactics and tried to listen in to Ko campaign secrets. The ruling party did not stay behind and accused the campaign aides of having installed the wires themselves in an effort to discredit the KMT camp.
In the end, the investigation showed that both sides were wrong and that an over-eager private investigator had planted the wires as a stunt to drum up more business.
The damage had been done, and what should have been a clean campaign had dissolved again to the level of a mudslinging contest.
Taiwan’s politicians are receiving a new chance at cleaning up their act this year with another decisive presidential election, another one which might lead to a transfer of power on May 20 next year.
The January 16, 2016 presidential election looks even more unprecedented because, barring any unforeseen circumstances, it will produce Taiwan’s first woman president, since for the first time both major candidates will be women.
Early hopes are that the phenomenon will bring a difference in style not just in governance, but also in campaigning.
However, there are already signs that those hopes are being dashed.
A local official helped disseminate online rumors that DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen was somehow indirectly involved with the Hai Pa Wang restaurant chain, which holds significant interests in China.
While nothing illegal was alleged, the reports hinted at hypocrisy on Tsai’s part. On the one hand, the opposition leader led protests against the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with China and issued warnings against the over-reliance of Taiwan’s economy on the communist country, but on the other hand, she seemed to be doing exactly what she had been warning against, investing in China.
Tsai rejected the rumors and said she nor her family had invested in China or in Hai Pa Wang, though a family-related company served as the landlord to the chain’s main outlet in Taipei City.
In the other direction, the KMT’s prospective candidate, Legislative Vice Speaker Hung Hsiu-chu, was faced with accusations that she had blown her academic achievements out of proportion by claiming to have graduated from a United States university.
Since many previous incidents are known in which politicians claimed to have studied at prestigious universities which turned out to be fake colleges selling diplomas for money, the allegations drew immediate attention.
Hung said she had followed the relevant courses, and her diploma, which showed the right stamp from a Taiwanese representative office in the United States, was declared valid by the Ministry of Education.
Whatever the truth, it is certain that both the allegations of investments in China against Tsai and of faking studies against Hung will continue to be mentioned, if not in the mainstream media, on online forums leading right up to election day.
It is to be hoped for the sake of Taiwan’s democracy that the latest promises to conduct a “different” election campaign are sincere. The candidates themselves, their party leaderships and key campaign aides have a key role to play in restraining their more “enthusiastic” members and supporters.
The policies of the candidates deserve to be front and center in this campaign, which could be one of the most crucial in recent Taiwanese history. The voters are mature enough to judge the candidates and the policies on their merits.
The campaign needs to be clean, not just because of the absence of corruption and vote-buying, but also clean because of the absence of wild speculation, unfounded accusations, slander and foul language.
If Taiwan wants a clean government, it will need clean elections first.


Updated : 2021-02-28 06:37 GMT+08:00