The View from Taichung: Ex-President Ma's indictment and democratic politics

Yes, it is good for democracy

Former President Ma Ying-jeou fielding questions from reporters Mar. 14, after being indicted for leaking state secrets. (By Central News Agency)

This weekend prosecutors indicted former President Ma Ying-jeou on the charge of leaking state secrets in a case dating back to September of 2013. The Special Investigations Division (SID) had been tapping the legislature's phones (a move that many considered to be of dubious legality) and had tapped a phone call that appeared to implicate then legislative Speaker and KMT heavyweight Wang Jin-pyng in peddling influence on behalf of DPP minority whip Ker Chien-ming.

The information was brought to President Ma by SID chief Huang Shih-ming. Ma then used it to publicly attack Wang, a longtime political rival who had angered the President by refusing to push the services pact through the legislature. He had Wang kicked out of the KMT and stripped of his at-large position, which meant he would lose his speakership position.

Wang sued to keep his position and party status. Ma's attack split the KMT, badly damaging the party and hurting the president and the party in the polls. Even the NT dollar took a hit. Wang beat him in court twice before KMT Chairman Eric terminated the effort to remove Wang in order to save party unity ahead of the 2016 election.

The indictment of Ma, which had long been predicted, especially since SID Chief Huang was eventually convicted of leaking the investigation to Ma, lead to the usual complaints. Many locals cynically viewed the indictments as pan-Green revenge for the KMT prosecution of Chen Shui-bian. Foreign observers despaired over statistic that all three elected presidents had been indicted once out of office. "Can it be good for Taiwan's democracy?" all asked, implying a rhetorical "no". The answer is yes, of course, and we should be cheering, instead of jeering, Taiwan's democracy in action.

Is this indictment some kind of pan-Green revenge? Hardly. This case began in September of 2013. By December of that SID Chief Huang was indicted for his role in the case. For the last few years knowledgeable observers have speculated that Ma sooner or later would come under prosecutorial scrutiny for making the wiretaps public. Moreover, SID Chief Huang was investigated, indicted, and convicted when the Administration was Blue. This case did not suddenly appear under the Tsai Administration.

Moreover, no cascade of indictments has come down on the KMT in connection with this or any other case to match that of the KMT against the DPP. The focus on Chen Shui-bian and Lee Teng-hui blinds observers to the all-important context: the opening year of the first Ma Administration saw indictments against an array of pan-Green politicians, including Annette Lu, Su Chih-fen, Ma Yung-cheng, and Yu Cheng-hsien, and in consecutive days in October of 2008, James Lee, Chen Ming-wen, Wang Ting-yu, and Chiou I-jen. Presidents Chen and Lee were merely the most notable victims.

There is no comparable context here. If there were, Sean Lien, Lien Chan, Alex Tsai, Eric Chu, Jason Hsu, Hung Hsiu-chu, and Wu Po-hsiung would all be under indictment, with indictments expected against more individual KMT politicians momentarily.

Another missing context is authoritarianism: it was always KMT policy during the Party-State era to indict DPP and tangwai politicians routinely, to intimidate and control them. Even today a few DPP politicians have outstanding but dormant indictments against them. Neither of the DPP administrations carried out a similar program of anti-democratic attacks on the opposition party.

The indictment of Ma is a single isolated case connected to a longstanding case that goes back nearly four years. in abeyance waiting for Ma to step down and end his presidential immunity. It is not part of any program. Though it is often linked to the attack on KMT assets in the pan-Blue spin, that latter move has long been promised, and would likely have been carried out as early as 2004 if Chen Shui-bian had not mismanaged the legislative election that year and blown the DPP's shot at controlling the legislature. The two moves are carried out by unrelated bodies, the legislature and the prosecutor's office, for unrelated reasons. The concurrent timing is just a coincidence. 

The Ma indictment is thus a step forward for Taiwan's democracy: an indictment of a previous president for a specific action, not merely for existing in opposition to the ruling party as were the previous cases. It represents prosecutors acting in a constitutionally and politically appropriate manner to check the Executive's apparent misuse of power. That is something to celebrate, not condemn.

Sadly, we can expect the international media to either misunderstand or ignore all this context, because pious worries about "democracy" make better copy than efforts to convey the complexities of the case to global and local audiences. Thus, an important opportunity to explain and to validate Taiwan's democracy for audiences within and without Taiwan will be lost in what is essentially an exercise of cynicism presented as wisdom. Much of this discourse is driven by, at least to this writer's eye, a western cultural chauvinism that tacitly treats non-western democracies as always more fragile and inferior.

Ma's attack on Wang also boosted Taiwan's democracy in another way: it made the Sunflower occupation of the legislature possible. Without Wang's tacit support, the students would have been ejected from the legislature. That occupation lead directly to the KMT's defeats in 2014 and 2016, sweeping the party from power, hugely advancing Taiwan's democracy.

One of the fruits of that victory fostered by Wang's tolerance of the occupation of the legislature was a DPP Administration, which in turn cleared the way for prosecutors to indict Ma.

History loves irony.