Written by Yu-Hsien Sung and Chin-shou Wang.

Image credit: Gavel by bloomsberries/Flickr, license CC BY-ND 2.0

For many years, Taiwan has suffered from substantial amounts of corruption. The dominant political party used voting-buying machines to secure popular support and elicit cooperation from elites. Following the changes in the political environment during the democratization period, the old mechanisms gradually failed in their effectiveness. In recent global surveys on governance and corruption, Taiwan is considered as one of the best performers in the Asia-Pacific region. However, during the past year, several Taiwanese politicians and government officials were involved in bribery scandals. Consequently, there was the scandal of a Major General being charged with corruption, along with five legislators indicted in a Sogo bribery case. All these ongoing investigations seem to contradict with the high ranking of clean governance that Taiwan received on the corruption improvement indices. It would seem prudent to consider a more thorough evaluation of Taiwan’s corruption control. In this short review, we will discuss the development of Taiwan’s judicial reform and its role in fighting corruption. We will argue that judicial independence plays a vital role in battling corruption, yet its impact is limited in terms of changing the overall political landscape.

Political Corruption in the 90s

At the beginning of Taiwan’s democratization, corruption was endemic. According to the data from the first wave East Asia Barometer, at least 40% of respondents consider Taiwan’s local government officials to be corrupt. In contrast, lower-level officials are perceived to be more corrupt than compared to central government officials. During the 90s, there were two reasons for this widespread corruption. First, the KMT – otherwise known as the nationalist party – used to rely on vote-buying as its electoral mobilization strategy. Thus, the KMT developed extensive broker organizations to distribute resources in return for electoral support. Second, the democratization process opened the seats of Legislative Yuan to the electoral competition, which led to the emergence of new political parties. Moreover, those emerging parties, for example, the DDP, imitated the KMT’s clientelistic mobilization to get votes. That said, DDP’s politicians were also involved in money politics. After democratization, local elites – who used to work with the KMT, when the latter monopolized the political market – started to form connections with DDP and the People First Party.

Judicial Reform and the Decline of Vote-Buying

1. Courts as instruments for the KMT’s Authoritarian Rule

Under the KMT’s authoritarian rule, courts have been deployed as instruments of governance for decades. Courts facilitate KMT’s regimes in two ways: first, the KMT used courts to discipline its clientelist elites. Second, courts provided legal protection for clientelistic elites’ corrupt activity. Because the clientelist elites often exploited the public resources and power for private purposes, their activities are often closely related to corruption. Furthermore, the KMT frequently mobilized voters with vote-buying. A controllable judiciary thus provided legal protection for vote-buying and masked clientelist elites’ illegal activities.

2. Taiwan’s Judicial Reforms and Prosecutorial Reforms

2a. Reform in the Court System

The judicial reform made its first progress around 1993. It was initiated by a group of young and reformed-minded judges from lower courts. Their primary movement strategy focuses on removing the two mechanisms—the case assignment and the personal control—that the KMT used to control the judiciary.

Prior to judicial reform, the case assignment was decided by the chairperson of the courts who can easily assign the most important cases – especially political corruption cases – to judges whom the chairperson can trust. This constitutes a key obstacle to judicial independence. As such, the first call of judicial reform focused on democratizing the case-assignment decisions. In 1993, judges from Taichung District Court held a press conference and proclaimed that the power over case assignment should be returned to all judges. After a lengthy discussion, the Taichung District Court passed a resolution to return the power of case assignment to all judges.

The second mechanism that the KMT used to control the judiciary was through personal control. During the authoritarian era, almost all important positions within the judiciary were held by KMT party members. One key element in this controlling mechanism was the judges’ career advancement, which was decided by the Personnel Review Council within the Judicial Yuan without any clear criteria. In 1994, several reform-minded judges set to compete for seats in the Personnel Review Council. By gaining the seats, these reform-minded judges successfully blocked the promotion of many unqualified or corrupt judges.

After those actions, many institutional hindrances to judicial independence were removed. However, for the KMT, the risk of an independent court is much smaller than an independent prosecutorial system. Prosecutors hold power over whether to bring cases to courts or not. Should prosecutors choose to investigate the corrupted elites, it would impose a substantial threat to the KMT.

2b. Reform in the Prosecutorial System

The reform in the prosecutorial system emerged when several young reform-minded prosecutors insisted on investigating political corruption cases and rejected any interference coming from their superiors. One of the most famous examples was the investigation of the KMT’s party office, which was led by prosecutor Lu Tai-lang in 1990. Despite receiving a warning from his superior, Lu continued his investigation and eventually indicted several KMT politicians. Another example related to a case of voter fraud in a legislative election in the Hualien district. Consequently, two reform-minded prosecutors found evidence for ballot stuffing in Hualien’s election. This case was the first successful investigation of voting fraud in Taiwan’s history.

It is not hard to imagine why the KMT took retaliatory actions against those reform-minded prosecutors. In 1995, the KMT took its first step to limit prosecutors’ power by cancelling their power over detained politicians. It was apparent that this action was meant to add more obstacles for young prosecutors when investigating these vote-buying cases. Another notorious example was the attack on prosecutors during 1996. This was when the Ministry of Justice suddenly transferred eight young prosecutors to different positions using various excuses. At that time, those prosecutors were about to investigate several politically sensitive cases.

To protect maverick prosecutors from the KMT’s punishment and to defend prosecutors’ independence, in 1998, thirteen reform-minded prosecutors organized the Prosecutor Reform Association, which had four purposes: to maintain prosecutors’ status of judge, to build proper units to investigate cases, to build the institution by which prosecutors elected the chiefs of each section, and to review the District Attorney by prosecutors. In two weeks, 391 prosecutors, more than 95% in District Prosecutors’ Offices, joined the Prosecutor Reform Association.

To summarize, both the court and prosecutorial reform eventually weakened the KMT’s control of the judiciary. There was one good example illustrating the consequence of losing judiciary protection. During the 2008 legislative election, five newly elected legislators were involved in vote-buying cases, and they ended up being annulled as invalid by the court. Among those five annulled legislators, four of them were KMT members, and another was from the People First Party. At that time, both the executive and legislative branches were dominated by the KMT. Not only did the KMT candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, win the presidency by 58.45% of the vote, the KMT also held over ¾ of seats in the Legislative Yuan. Given the political advantage, a controlled judiciary would not rule cases against the KMT. Thus many KMT politicians did not realize that the judiciary is no longer their political tool. In the end, the court did make those accused legislators lose their eligibility.

The Limitation of Judicial Reform on Battling Corruption

Although the judicial reform helped clean political corruption, the strategy itself also has its limits on batting corruption. In recent years, we have seen that in several rural districts, political power and resources are still in the hands of political elites involved in money politics. There are also scandals involving connections between politicians and business. It appears that judicial reform alone cannot change the political landscape overall. In order to reduce political corruption, we suggest that several efforts need to be made.

First of all, we need “new-faces” to join the elections, especially in rural districts. In those districts, one common phenomenon is a lack of alternatives. Political positions are occupied continuously by political elites who are involved in voting fraud. Despite prosecutors’ effort in voting fraud investigation, a new dynamic has formed—after the removal of a corrupt politician, his/her family members will join the special election.

Second, we need new laws to regulate the connection between politicians and corporations. It is not uncommon that corporations spent millions of dollars on elections or as political donations in order to influence state regulation and policies. The existing laws bound judicial investigations. Hence, when rules on politicians and corporations are not clearly defined, even prosecutors’ hands are tied.

Overall, judicial independence has played an essential role in fighting corruption after Taiwan’s democratization. However, it also has its limitations. In order to bring about more effective corruption management, it requires the call for changes from civic society and the public’s supervision on government officials and lawmakers.

Yu-Hsien Sung is a PhD student in political science and a master’s student in applied statistics at the University of South Carolina. Her research focuses on law and politics.

Chin-shou Wang is a professor at the Department of Political Science, National Cheng Kung University. His research interests include judicial politics, law and society, and political sociology.

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