Not A New Story: Tracing the History of Corruption in Tainan

Written by Jonathan Leung.

Image credit: 邱莉莉/ Facebook.

Early Incidents in Tainan City Council’s Speaker Elections

Earlier this year, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of Tainan City Council, Chiu Li-li and Lin Chih-chan, were arrested on suspicion of involvement in a bribery case related to the speaker election last December. However, this is not the first time incidents concerning the speaker election in Tainan City Council have made headlines. Accidents and controversies have arisen several times, drawing attention to the Tainan City Council’s speaker election held every four years in December.

Tainan City is widely recognised as one of Taiwan’s greenest cities, with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) holding a strong presence. During his tenure as mayor, Vice President William Lai even referred to Tainan as the “Holy Land of Democracy.” When direct elections were first introduced, both Tainan City and Tainan County elected non-KMT independent candidates, known as Tangwai, as their mayor and magistrate, respectively. In 2010, the two entities merged to create the special municipality of Tainan City. The DPP and its allies, such as independent councillors with green-leaning views and other Pan-Green party members from the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) and Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP), consistently maintain a majority in the Tainan City Council.

With a strong Pan-Green base, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker positions in the Tainan City Council should seemingly be secured for their candidates. However, they experienced unexpected losses in both 2014 and 2018. The issue of “traitor councillors” who vote for candidates outside their party’s nominee has been a recurring phenomenon within the Council. In 2010, for example, nine KMT and three DPP councillors were expelled from their respective parties on suspicion of voting for candidates from the opposing party. However, this did not impact the outcome. This showed that Tainan had a long historic tradition of unpredictable speaker election results. To understand the current controversy on the Tainan City Council corruption, it is necessary to contextualise it in a broader picture by tracing back to the previous convictions. This article narrates the history of Tainan’s political controversies from Lee Chuan-chiao to Kuo Hsin-liang and Chiu Li-li to see the pattern and development of corruption.

The Unexpected KMT Speaker: Lee Chuan-chiao 2014

Eight years ago, the DPP enjoyed their best record in the local electoral history of Taiwan. They took 13 mayoral and magistrate seats, including three constituencies they left vacant for the non-KMT candidates, while the KMT could only secure six seats. In the councillor election results, the DPP took 291 seats across the 22 cities and counties, one of the best results. Understandably, in addition to the traditionally green-based councils, they would like to expand their influence by capturing the seats of the speaker and deputy speaker in other councils as well. Yet, they were unexpectedly defeated in the speaker election in their heartlands of Tainan City Council.

The DPP won a landslide majority in the City Council with 28 seats, while the KMT could only take 16. There were twelve independent councillors and a councillor from the TSU, which is considered a pan-green ally. The DPP nominated Lai Mei-hui to seek re-election, while the KMT nominated Lee Chuan-chiao, the former legislator, to challenge the DPP. Surprisingly, Lai could only take 26 votes while Lee took 29; there also were two invalid votes. Although the KMT had a lot fewer seats than the DPP, they won the speaker election. Kuo Hsin-liang from the DPP was elected as the Deputy Speaker with 36 ballots.

To ensure ballots were cast according to the caucus’ command, the DPP ordered its councillors to “technically reveal” their votes during the process, by facing the upper side of the ballot paper for others to observe. On the contrary, some KMT councillors blocked the attempt to disguise their ballot, and some even pushed the ballot box. As a result, the Council ended up in chaos, and the KMT captured the speaker post. The rumour was that the KMT tempted some DPP councillors to switch sides with millions of cash rewards. After an investigation, the DPP decided to banish five councillors’ party membership due to suspicion of being bribed and failing to reveal their ballot papers during the voting process. William Lai, then Tainan Mayor, refused to attend the mayoral question session as a protest towards the incident of the speaker election. Lee was prosecuted and tried for bribery afterwards, and his posts as speaker and councillor were disqualified, followed by imprisonment. Lai Mei-hui from the DPP was then successfully elected in the by-election in 2016 as the city council speaker.

Rebel from the DPP: Kuo Hsin-liang 2018

The disturbance in Tainan City Council did not end with Lai re-capturing the speaker seats for the DPP; a similar incident happened again in 2018. Although the DPP did not perform well in the local elections, they could still secure the majority in the Tainan City Council with 25 seats. The KMT had 16 seats, while the TSU and New Power Party (NPP) had seats, respectively, and there were 15 independent councillors. The DPP nominated Chiu Li-li from the New Tide Faction (新潮流) to run for the speaker election, which aroused the discontent of the Normal Country Faction (正國會). Kuo Hsin-liang, from the DPP, the Deputy Speaker, announced his withdrawal from the DPP after swearing. Three DPP councillors following Kuo also withdrew from the party.

The KMT was supposed to nominate their speaker and deputy speaker candidates, but they had switched to cooperating with the Non-Partisan Solidarity Union caucus, mainly comprising independent councillors. Yet, they had suddenly changed again to support Kuo. With the support of the KMT, independent councillors and some DPP rebels, Kuo was elected speaker. As a result, the DPP again lost the speaker seat in Tainan.  

Last Ditch Effort: Incident of Chiu Li-li 2022

With previous traumas, the DPP was very nervous about losing the speaker election again. Making sure pan-green ballots were cast only to the DPP candidate, they had decided to take the risk of using extraordinary measures. In the 2022 local elections, the DPP took 28 seats, while the KMT won 12 seats, and there were also 15 independent councillors. The TSU and TSP, the pan-green allies, also took one seat, respectively. Theoretically, since the DPP councillors doubled those of the KMT and had a majority against the KMT and independent councillors combined, the speaker seat should be safe. However, when the caucus decided to nominate Chiu Li-li to run for the speaker election, they faced disputes from the Normal Country Faction again. Dramatically, Chiu was elected with 36 votes, eight more than the total number of DPP councillors. In addition to the two pan-green allies, she received support from three independent councillors and, unexpectedly, three votes from the KMT. “I’m not okay to say,” Lee Wen-chun, the KMT-nominated deputy speaker candidate who had voted for Chiu, responded. The Speaker election incident once again incited political turmoil in Tainan, but the DPP benefited this time.

The KMT expelled the three rebellious councillors, but the case has been escalated as a legal incident. Allegations of criminal involvement and bribery have been raised as explanations for the result of this incident. The Tainan District Prosecutors Office arrested and detained ten people after the Speaker election, including Chiu, Lin Chih-chan, the KMT rebels and some people outside the Council suspected of being related to this incident. Bribery was the main direction of the investigation at the early stage. The rumour was that each switching vote was worth ten to twenty million NTD. Besides, the DPP, namely Chiu and Lin, guaranteed the party would vote for Lee as Deputy Speaker if he and some KMT members voted for them in the Speaker election.

Moreover, the DPP invited a retail businessman to negotiate with another KMT councillor Lee Chen-kuo, tempting him to switch sides by giving him a discount if he would like to buy or build any property from them. The KMT councillors were assured that should they need to run for re-election independently in four years due to expulsion from the KMT, financial support for their campaign expenses would be provided. Additionally, if they were to lose the election, they would receive monetary compensation equivalent to the salary earned during a councillor’s term.

Furthermore, this incident involved intimidation, a more serious criminal offence. For instance, Lee Chen-kuo reported being threatened by an unidentified individual who made a gun gesture towards him. Another KMT councillor, Fang Yi-fung, claimed that Chiu enlisted the help of a local gangster known as “Bandit Chicken” to intimidate him. He was the father of the DPP councillor Lin Yi-ting and the Director General of the Tainan City Fishing Association. Hidden Camera recorded that he and Chiu forced him to board the van to threaten him.

The DPP has suspended Chiu and Lin, and the Tainan District Prosecutors Office has initiated an investigation into this widespread, bipartisan incident. However, it is essential to view this event not in isolation but as part of a pattern closely linked to historical occurrences. The Speaker elections held every four years following local elections have consistently been controversial in Tainan. The current case in Tainan is indeed a serious political corruption, but you cannot understand it without knowing the previous speaker elections. The DPP, anxious about potentially losing the speaker election due to numerous internal betrayals, employed extreme tactics such as bribery and intimidation to regain control. However, it remains uncertain whether Huang Wei-che or the DPP should adopt the same approach as Lai’s 2014 Council boycott in response to this incident. Corruption continues to significantly challenge Taiwan’s democracy, particularly in local politics.

Jonathan Leung is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in History at SOAS, University of London, having previously earned his Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Sheffield. His research focuses on the post-war political and social history of Taiwan.

This article was published as part of a special issue titled “Corruption, Clientelism and Democracy”.

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