Impeachment Proceedings Begin in Taiwan

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Impeachment proceedings against the president of Taiwan have begun. Chen Shui-bian was the first opposition leader to win the office after the island began holding presidential elections a decade ago. Taiwan was ruled by founder Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party up until Chen took office.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Impeachment proceedings are underway against the president of Taiwan. Chen Shui-bian was the first opposition leader to win office since the island began holding presidential elections a decade ago. After a series of corruption scandals, he's now under pressure to step down.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Taipei.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

ANTHONY KUHN: With a tropical storm bearing down on the island, a group of young men and women recently huddled under a marble archway at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial in the city center. One college student was on a hunger strike. Next to him was another student with long hair and glasses.

IAN SHEN: My name is Ian Shen, and I'm from Shu-Shing University. And what we're doing here for the past 30 days is that we try to tell the nation that we want President Chen out of the office immediately, because of the scandals - so that we don't think we can trust anymore.

KUHN: The scandals appear far from dying down. One of Chen Shui-bian's top aides and a son-in-law have both been indicted on insider trading charges. And his wife is being investigated for accepting gifts from businessmen. President Chen has promised to clean up his act and his family's. He's also pledged to relinquish some decision-making powers to his premier.

Emil Sheng is a political science professor at Soochow University in Taipei. He says Chen's Democratic Progressive Party will take a long time to recover from the damage.

EMIL SHENG: If President Chen does not resign on his own, then there is no way that the DPP can have a fresh start.

KUHN: But President Chen is unlikely to quit or be driven from office. In June, legislators from the Nationalist Party failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to recall him. A new impeachment motion was launched on August 2nd. This is all a drastic reversal of fortunes for Chen, who once hailed as a democrat for ending the Nationalist's party half-century monopoly on political power. The Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war to the Communist on the mainland.

The Bush administration initially promised to do whatever it takes to defend Taiwan. Now, it maybe be privately relieved that Chen's lame duck status will leave him little room to provoke mainland China with moves towards Taiwanese independence. Now, even some of Chen's closest allies have turned on him. At a recent press conference, several prominent academics - who once backed Chen - criticized his refusal to resign.

Professor FAN YUN (Sociology, National Taiwan University) (Through Translator) A century ago, the Nationalist Party was a progressive force. But it quickly turned into an oppressive regime. The DPP once represented native Taiwanese progressive forces. Now it seems to have lost the ability to feel the pulse of history.

KUHN: Fan Yun - an assistant professor at National Taiwan University's Sociology Department - read the group statement, criticizing what it considers the DPP's partisan arrogance.

YUN: (Through Translator) The opposition party's oversight of the government is seen as enemy resistance, not democratic competition. The democratic process of political parties taking turns in power is seen as the restoration of the old regime.

KUHN: Mounting criticism from within the DPP makes it likely that Chen's remaining year and a half in office will at best be uncomfortable. William Lai is the DPP's legislative caucus whip. He says that in his six years as president, Chen Shui-bian amassed a lion's share of decision-making power within the party. Now, he says, the party is wary of the political chaos that might ensue if Chen steps down.

WILLIAM LAI: (Through Translator) The party's mainstream opinion is not in favor of recalling President Chen Shui-bian, forcing him to resign, or expelling him from the party. They're just saying the party should play a larger role - the way it did when it was in opposition.

KUHN: Critics say both the DPP and the Nationalists are essentially revolutionary parties that failed to change when they came to power. Revolutionary parties tend not to be democratic and open unless they want to be infiltrated and smashed by the dictatorships they opposed. Still, Soochow University's Emil Sheng remains hopeful.

SHENG: I'm pretty optimistic about Taiwanese democracy. I feel like 10 years from now - and we will look back, we might be able to say that this is the critical moment where people really learned their lessons from enacting democracy.

KUHN: The lessons are clear, says Sheng. Don't let partisanship substitute for ethical standards and political responsibility. Don't give a leader power without adequate checks and balances. And, he adds, don't imagine that the death of a one-party dictatorship means the end of corruption.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Taipei.

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