Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Single Standard for Vote-Buying Prosecutions

A Single Standard for Vote-Buying Prosecutions
China Times Editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
November 28, 2007

The State Public Prosecutor General's Office launched its "Project Minefield" with a great deal of fanfare. It boasted that it had cast a dragnet over 3,000 cases of vote-buying. The very next day, ironically, the Kaohsiung District Court announced its ruling on the Kaohsiung Mayoral Race Per Diem scandal from last year. The court ruled that the 500 NT Per Diem the DPP issued to supporters had nothing to do with vote-buying! They were merely "wages" paid to participants in election rallies. Everyone involved was ruled "not guilty." Even the Ministry of Justice was outraged by the court's ruling, and issued a stern warning that same night: Those involved in the Per Diem scandal should not assume they won't be prosecuted.

When the public questioned the handling of the State Affairs Confidential Expense case, the Discretionary Fund case, and other major cases, the Ministry of Justice merely offered explanations and clarified doubts. It did not react as strongly as it has now. For the Ministry of Justice to express a legal opinion on an isolated case is extraordinary. The ministry's reaction underscores its concern about the negative impact this ruling may have on future vote-buying prosecutions.

The Kaohsiung Per Diem decision defied the average person's common sense understanding of what it means to buy votes. For several years, both the ruling and opposition parties have been competing to catch the other engaging in vote-buying. Issuing Per Diem is recognized by both camps as vote-buying. Catching someone red-handed issuing Per Diem has become an effective campaign tactic. To cite a random example, during the Taipei County Magistrate Election two years ago, Democratic Progressive Party candidate Luo Wen-chia's election campaign was videotaped issuing its supporters 300 NT in Per Diem. Whether the videotape had a decisive impact on Luo's election campaign and led to his loss is hard to say. Although the Banqiao District Court handed down a suspended sentence, it unequivocally ruled that issuing Per Diem was vote-buying.

The Taipei County Magistrate Election was not the only case. The Kaohsiung Mayoral Election last year was another. A campaign worker for Taiwan Solidarity Union legislator Luo Chih-ming also issued participants in an election rally 500 NT in Per Diem. He was sentenced to three years and two months in prison, and deprived of his political rights for three years. When one compares the sentences doled out to Ku Hsin-ming and Tsai Neng-hsiang, one has to wonder, was there really that much difference between 300 NT and 500 NT in Per Diem for attending a evening election rally?

For several years, the ruling and opposition camps have resorted to large scale mobilization to increase attendance at their rallies. Any large-scale event involving tens of thousands or even thousands of supporters, inevitably necessitate tour buses to transport flag-waving, slogan-shouting supporters. Not all these supporters are constituents from the candidate's own electoral district. Campaign workers responsible for mobilizing these supporters know perfectly well it is impossible to recruit that many people willing to spend hours riding buses, wolfing down brown bag lunches, and shouting campaign slogans, without paying them "wages." The only question is how they are to be paid. One must never get caught. One must never issue Per Diem on the buses, where there is no place to hide.

It is true that some individuals who issued Per Diem in the past have been found "not guilty." The justification given for such verdicts was that Per Diem and voting did not amount to a quid pro quo. Per Diem was merely "wages for work on behalf of the campaign." Admittedly, prosecutors and judges must be discrete before convicting someone of a crime. One cannot convict based on mere suspicions. Whether there was a quid pro quo is something that must be verified. But how did the judge determine that there was no quid pro quo? Elections require secret ballots. Judges cannot demand that people who were issued Per Diem reveal how they voted. Are we really going to check recipients against voter registration lists to see whether they were qualified to vote? Or are we simply going to take one side at its word?

Ku Hsin-ming admitted during his trial that people on the bus said they were voting for candidate number one, and that he replied, "Uh huh." Nevertheless the judge ruled that because so many people were talking at the same time, Ku could not be sure what they meant! If we are to believe the judge, Ku Hsing-ming's testimony and the testimony of supporters on the bus jibe. If we are to believe the judge, these supporters were on their way to a rally, but didn't know whose rally they were going to, and had to verify whose rally they were going to before deciding whom to vote for.

These campaign supporters were recruited by local party bosses. Certainly the local party bosses knew who they were supporting. Rallies have become an integral part of election campaigns. As a result, the staging of rallies has evolved into a profession all its own. Rally organizers have become hired guns able to take on jobs at a moment's notice. If the judges presiding over such cases accept such rationalizations, it will be increasingly difficult to prove that issuing Per Diem constitutes vote-buying. Any vote-buying activity can and will be disguised as Per Diem, as "wages for work on behalf of the campaign," exempt from prosecution. How will the prosecutors who laid down 3000 land mines be able to investigate vote-buying? Will they simply indict everyone and let the judges separate the sheep from the goats? Suppose every candidate who issued Per Diem then lost his election bid decides to file suit? Isn't that a frightening prospect? If public prosecutors abide by this decision, and fail to indict those who issue Per Diem for campaign rallies, how can they indict those who hold fund-raising dinners?

On the eve of the election, at the very moment public prosecutors have promised comprehensive anti-corruption initiatives, the Kaohsiung District Court dropped its bombshell. Just as the legal system must adopt a single standard for the Four Princes Discretionary Fund cases, so it must adopt a single standard for the Per Diem cases. Only then can the public trust the legal system and reconcile its judgments with common sense. Only then will controversy over public prosecutors' vigorous investigation of vote-buying die down.

中國時報  2007.11.28










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