The indictment on embezzlement charges of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) will add another layer of uncertainty to next year’s presidential and legislative elections, political observers said.
Lee, hated by China for his pro-independence views, and aide Liu Tai-ying (劉泰英) were accused on Thursday of embezzling US$7.8 million in national security funds when Lee was in office from 1988 to 2000, according to a statement from prosecutors.
Lee’s lawyer has denied the charges.
The indictment comes seven months before a presidential election that is widely seen as a referendum on the future of Taiwan’s relations with China.
China reviles Lee, who tried to wrestle diplomatic space for Taiwan during his 12-year term as president. Though a member of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) while president, he was expelled in 2001 and he became the “spiritual leader” of the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union.
That has prompted suspicion that the charges against Lee are designed to discredit its pan-green ally, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
“It may be an attempt to change the perception of the green [opposition] camp in some voters’ eyes by creating the impression they are not trustworthy,” said Shane Lee, professor of political science and law at Chang Jung University.
The DPP has expressed concern over Lee’s indictment.
“The DPP hopes there will not be big legal cases before the presidential election that could impact the fairness of the election,” it said in a statement.
Greater Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) of the DPP was more forthright, accusing the KMT of “manipulating the law to influence the election.”
Shane Lee said the case could stop some people from voting for DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and could also bring back some wavering KMT voters.
“It’s going to be a very tight election,” he said. “The indictment may not sway many voters, but could sway enough [for the KMT] to win.”
China has not commented on the indictment of a man it once labeled the “scum of the nation” who should be tossed into the “dustbin of history.”
“Over the past few years there have been numerous cases like this, including that of [former president] Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁),” said Li Peng (李鵬), assistant director at Xiamen University’s Taiwan Research Institute in China. “Though some people have tried to turn this into a political issue, basically over the last few years Taiwan’s judicial reforms have been quite good. It’s better to look at this as a judicial case rather than a political one.”
Chen is currently serving a 19-year jail term for corruption. He has said that his prosecution is a vendetta carried out by the current administration in retaliation for his pro-independence stance during his 2000 to 2008 term as president.