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A nation must think before it acts.
On March 14, the former president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, was charged with leaking classified information related to a wiretapping case. This indictment is not the first—or even second—time that a former president of the country has experienced legal troubles after leaving office.
As president, Ma released recordings of a member of the Democratic Progressive Party and Wang Jin-pyng, a member of the Kuomintang (KMT) and President of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s legislative body), to the Premier.
Ma said that he ordered the leak because he felt that it was his duty as the head of state to release information related to potential influence peddling. The government’s prosecutor authorized the wiretapping due to suspicions that the two politicians were using Wang’s position to influence judicial officials.
If convicted, Ma could face up to three years in jail.
Ma has insisted on his innocence claiming that he handled everything appropriately as head of state. According to Ma, he was dealing with a crisis and what “he believed were political flaws and responsibilities involving cabinet members.”
When discussing the charge, Ma said, “Legislators can get away with peddling their influence, but the people who uncovered the scandal have been prosecuted. Where is the justice?”
Ma’s post-presidency has been anything but pleasant. The wiretapping lawsuit is not the only one that Ma has faced (and is facing) since he left office in May 2016. The day that he left office, Ma faced 24 lawsuits because his presidential immunity ceased. Also, he was barred by the presidential office from travelling to Hong Kong for “national security concerns” though he has traveled several times to the United States since leaving office.
Unfortunately for Taiwan, Ma is not the first former president to be charged, convicted, or jailed after his tenure in office.
Former President Chen Shui-bian, a member of the DPP, was found guilty of corruption in 2009. He, along with his wife, was sentenced to life in prison, but the sentencing was later reduced to 20 years. He was found guilty of corruption and graft for accepting over US$20 million in bribes and misusing public funds. Chen claimed that the charges against him were politically motivated and a form of revenge by the KMT for his staunch pro-independence views.
The Chen case is an important precedent to explore because Ma may find himself in similar circumstances soon. Like Chen, Ma faces a government with the executive and legislative branches controlled by the other side. Members of the KMT have complained that Ma’s indictment is revenge for what the KMT did to former president Chen. His refusal to pardon Chen as a courtesy to his predecessor, among other things, provides little incentive for current President Tsai Ing-wen to be lenient and pardon him.
Further compounding this pattern of legal troubles, another Chen’s predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, was also indicted on corruption charges for embezzling US$7.8 million during his tenure in office. Lee was acquitted and won on the prosecutor’s appeal.
This pattern of every ex-president of Taiwan being charged is troubling for what many consider a vibrant and healthy democracy in Asia. Not only did Taiwan recently elect its first woman president in 2016, but it also handed the Legislative Yuan to the opposition DPP for the first time in the country’s history. Many across the world looked (and still do look) to Taiwan as a blueprint for a successful and open democracy in a region where there are not very many.
When it comes to ex-presidents, however, Taiwan is riding a carousel of judicial issues. What does it say for a country that the first three presidents who came to office through popular, democratic elections have faced prosecution? Can a democracy truly be characterized as vibrant and thriving when Lee, Chen, and Ma were not able to live life as a private citizen without being surrounded by a cloud of lawsuits?
This bickering and targeting of ex-presidents is not healthy for the country. The lawsuit against Ma and related debates will soak up hours of air time on Taiwanese television, distracting people and the government from more important issues like cross-Strait relations, Chinese aggression in the East Asia, pension reform, modernizing the economy, and many other things.
If Ma is found guilty for leaking classified information in this particular case, it would be in President Tsai’s best interest to pardon him. She must break the cycle of political bickering and revenge and show herself to be a truly transcendent leader. By eschewing partisan politics and not sticking it to the opposition, Tsai can show her colleagues—rivals and allies alike—how to truly lead a nation.
An opportunistic leader would seize the moment to shore up his or her popular support, but a selfless leader should rise above—not bow to—the popular opinion of the day for the good of the country. If she does not work toward bridging gaps and reducing the hyper-partisan nature of Taiwanese politics, then in four, eight, or however many years it takes for the KMT to return to power, Tsai just might find herself taking a ride on the same carousel that Chen has ridden since 2009 and that Ma is just getting (un)comfortable on.