Indictment rocks Taiwan's president

Issue 

Just as a five-month-old campaign to oust him was losing momentum, President Chen Shui-bian was rocked on November 3 when the public prosecutor indicted his wife, Wu Shu-chen, and three other people for allegedly embezzling US$450,000 from a special diplomatic fund.

The prosecutor claimed there was enough evidence to indict the president as well, but while Chen is still in office he retains constitutional immunity from indictment.

Within hours of the indictment, the parliamentary opposition led by the Nationalist Party (KMT) and the People First Party put forward a motion, likely to be tabled in parliament on November 24, to unseat Chen. Similar motions failed in June and October.

The KMT's 79 seats in the 225-seat parliament and the PFP's 34 don't give them enough votes to meet the two-thirds majority required to oust Chen. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) holds 89 seats, and its key parliamentary ally — the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) — holds 12. However, on November 3 the TSU declared it planned to support the motion.

In a desperate attempt to counter the danger, on November 5 Chen promised he would step down if his wife was convicted. According to the November 9 Taipei Times, Chen emphasised in his televised speech that day that he'd "been wronged" but couldn't disclose where the money had gone, in order to protect people carrying out secret diplomatic missions for Taiwan.

Over the November 4-5 weekend, street protests resurfaced in the capital Taipei and Kaohsiung in the south. Daily protests seeking to pressure Chen to step down had been held outside his office in Taipei since September 9, but had dwindled significantly in recent weeks.

Following the TSU's lead, long-brewing dissent within Chen's DPP surfaced. A string of DPP legislators made public statements that the president should step aside while the investigation is underway, even proposing the party leadership frees DPP legislators from voting on the ouster motion along party lines.

Clearly as a result of intense arm-twisting, on November 6 the TSU announced that it would now reject the motion, after an emergency parliamentary caucus. The party claimed that its MPs had faced intense pressure from voters over earlier plans to support the motion.

On November 8, a crucial meeting between the DPP central leadership and DPP MPs was held to determine Chen's fate. The pro-Chen forces emerged victorious, overwhelmingly defeating a motion that sought to instruct Chen to take a leave from the presidency during the embezzlement investigation. According to a November 9 report by the Taiwan-based United Daily News, the DPP gathering also passed a motion to gag public criticism of Chen, with violations of this decision to be punished by a two-year suspension from party duties.

The dissident DPP MPs have essentially come from a now-defunct party faction, the New Tide, a rival of Chen's former Justice Alliance faction. At its height, the DPP had six internal factions, but a July party congress formally disbanded them.

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