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Testing times for Taiwan

BBC News - November 4, 2006

Caroline Gluck, Taipei For some, news that Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's wife had been indicted on corruption charges, and that the president himself could face similar charges in the future although he is currently protected by presidential immunity was one of the darkest days in Taiwan's recent political history.

Many saw it as a day of shame. But for others, it was a day of hope, a milestone in the island's maturing democratic process and a vindication of the independence of its judicial system which had shown it could withstand political pressure.

"It's a disgrace for Taiwan's democracy that we have such a corrupt president who lied so many times," said Emile Sheng, professor of political science at Soochow University and spokesman for a campaign that has organised weeks of street protests to highlight corruption and urged President Chen to step down.

"At the same time, it also marks a maturing moment in Taiwan's democracy."

Sign of independence

He and other critics of the president had, in the past, voiced their concerns over what they felt was a lack of independence in the judiciary.

"This gives us some hope that not all prosecutors are willing to be controlled by the executive power, it's a sign of judicial independence in Taiwan," he said.

Yet, despite Friday's announcement, there are mixed views about its political impact.

And not everyone believes that Taiwan is set to have a new president in office. President Chen is not constitutionally obliged to step down. And while he still remains in office, he enjoys immunity from prosecution on all charges except sedition.

If he does leave before his term ends in May 2008 either voluntarily, or through a recall motion he is likely to be succeeded by Vice-President Annette Lu, who is reviled by China for her outspoken views.

Dissenting voices

Taiwan's opposition parties have called on the president to immediately resign, saying he has lost the public's trust and respect.

They say if that does not happen in the next few days, they will begin pushing for a third attempt to recall him from office next week.

This time, they will have the support of legislators from the Taiwan Solidarity Union a former ally of the president's party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

But for the recall measure to pass, and to trigger a national referendum, more than 12 members of the governing party will still have to break ranks and vote in favour of the motion.

And there is no guarantee that will happen.

While there are dissenting voices within the DPP, with some arguing that President Chen has become too much of a liability ahead of crucial mayoral and legislative elections, the party has so far stood united behind the president, who had previously vigorously denied any wrongdoing.

The DPP's future actions could be a critical factor in determining the course of the current crisis.

Allegations

Senior party members held crisis talks late into Friday night. It ended with demands for the president to honestly and publicly explain his role in the scandal.

"Most of my colleagues were quite shocked by the contents of the prosecutors' report," said DPP legislator, Hsiao Bi-Khim, who took part in the meetings.

"There's a lot of disappointment.

"Yet many still have confidence in the president and they're expecting him to give the public a full report and a disclosure of the destination of the funds that are unaccounted for.

"We hope he can do that sooner, rather than later, so that the public can regain confidence in him."

Prosecutors have alleged that 14.8m New Taiwan dollars ($450,000) was misappropriated from a special presidential allowance fund, and falsified accounts submitted.

President Chen, who was questioned twice by prosecutors, had maintained the funds were used for secret diplomatic activities.

But officials, who looked at six cases involving the use of the fund, said that while the president's explanation for two cases stood up to scrutiny, others showed discrepancies; and in one case was "pure fiction".

Some observers, like Philip Yang, professor of political science at National Taiwan University, believe that the DPP's failure to draw a clear line between itself and President Chen will only see the party face further falls in public support.

Several opinion polls conducted by the local media have shown that more than half the public want the president to quit.

"The DPP has not evolved into an independent mechanism. In the past, the DPP and its politicians argued that the party had the highest moral standards... but so far, it seems that that is not so."

"As for President Chen, I don't believe he will resign. He will fight back...and we might see him once again raising issues, such as controversial constitutional matters, or cross strait relations, to try to bolster support and distract attention."

"But in a political sense, the president is over. He'll be a lame duck," he said.

These are certainly testing times for President Chen Shui-bian.

He has faced other crises and defied his critics before.

But his future now looks bleaker than ever.

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