Taiwan struggles to shake off the era of corruption in local politics

In the central Taiwan city of Taichung earlier this month, as the country prepared to vote in local elections, the same word came up several times during a speech by Democratic Progressive Party hopeful Shen Shu-cheng. :”heijin.”

The term translates directly to “black gold,” but most audiences understand it to refer to corruption, vote-buying, or the use of illicit money for political purposes. The term is also something that observers might refer to in the recent past, not the local elections that will take place on November 26.

Shen is running for county councilor in Nantou, Taiwan’s landlocked mountainous county that shows the limits of even one of Asia’s strongest democracies.

This weekend’s elections are highly competitive and see multiple candidates vying for some 11,000 seats, including 930 seats for mayors, magistrates, and county and city councillors.

People walk past candidates' campaign flags in Taipei, Taiwan on November 20, 2022. Taiwan will hold local elections on November 26.

People walk past candidates’ campaign flags in Taipei, Taiwan on November 20, 2022. Taiwan will hold local elections on November 26.

While most are likely to go smoothly, there have still been difficulties in this election cycle.

“The problem of vote buying may be relatively rare in cities like Taipei and Taichung, but in Nantou, because it is relatively rural, buying votes is really very serious, I would say it is prevalent,” Shen said, “and in Nantou Vote buying is linked, at the same time [time]gangsters involved in other illegal activities that also intimidate voters.

the heijin The era saw its height in the 1990s during Taiwan’s bumpy and crime-ridden transition to democracy after nearly 40 years of martial law that ended in 1987.

Some blame the sudden rise of the criminal underworld when guns became widely available after martial law, while other scholars even blamed President Lee Teng Hui, who led Taiwan from 1988 to 2000. Lee was reportedly willing to work with less than likable characters when he lacked support within the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), during Taiwan’s transition from a one-party state to democratic rule in 1996.

While the era is largely over, patronage networks, vote buying and even candidates with ties to organized crime have been hard to wipe out entirely in more rural areas.

“It’s getting harder and harder to buy votes now because we have smartphones and can record videos or live broadcasts at any time, which also makes older people not dare to buy them so blatantly,” Shen said. In Nantou, vote buying has become discreet and is done through intermediaries such as the local lizhang or neighborhood watchdog, though the payments have fallen in value.

The problem can still be found beyond Nantou. As of last week, the Justice Ministry said it had accepted 2,400 electoral bribery cases involving almost 4,000 people.

Ko-lin Chin, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, captures how organized crime infiltrated Taiwanese politics in the 1990s in a 2003 book. Heijin: organized crime, business and politics in Taiwan. In it, Chin quotes some political candidates who remember how heijin dominated the country’s politics for the better part of a decade.

Chin declined to comment on the contemporary problem of heijin But one of the most shocking events of the era was in 1997, a year after Taiwan’s first democratic elections, when a campaign manager was buried alive and several local politicians were shot in a farmers’ association election.

The connection between crime and politics remains a problem in Taiwan. Among the candidates who ran on Nov. 26, nearly 200 have criminal records, voter fraud or drunk driving charges, according to a database compiled by the Taiwan Whistleblower and Corruption Protection Association.

Among the November 26 candidates is Chung Tung-chin, an independent candidate for Miaoli County magistrate who served a prison term of 3 years and 8 months for beating a man to death and is linked to the death of another man in 1987. among other crimes, according to court documents reviewed by local media. Chung reportedly called the death “accidental”, added local reports. VOA reached out to Chung for comment on his criminal record, but inquiries went unanswered.

Then there are independent candidate for Chiayi county councilor Tsai Cheng-yi, who served a prison sentence for fixing Taiwan National Baseball League games in 2009, and Yilan county magistrate Lin Zi-miao, who is running for relocation despite being indicted on corruption charges. in August. VOA also reached out to Lin for answers about her past corruption charges, but did not get a response.

These remnants of the heijin times belies Taiwan’s international reputation. It was ranked 25th globally in Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index and the presidential elections are open to international observers and run smoothly.

Puma Shen, director of the disinformation research group DoubleThink Lab, said that heijin it began to fade in the early 2000s, as Taiwan’s main opposition party defeated the KMT and the democratic system matured.

Wang Chin-shou, a professor at National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, called the year 2008 when the KMT was willing to prosecute its own members in a major corruption scandal despite winning the presidency and a majority in the legislature in the national elections that same year. year.

Wang said that judicial independence has come a long way since the 1990s, as prosecutors can launch independent investigations. Taiwan’s urbanization has also made it difficult, he said, as he has broken local patronage networks.

“After 2008, for county and mayor legislators, not to mention the presidential election, we basically don’t see vote buying anymore. I can’t say that with 100% certainty, for example in [rural counties] Hualien, Taitung or Miaoli,” he told VOA. “It is still possible, but basically the truth is that there are very few in Taiwan. It’s quite common among municipal parties and county and city councillors, but some people have been arrested.”

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