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Taiwan president, party hit by scandal and rifts

The Washington Post

A widening political scandal is threatening to split Taiwan’s ruling party and potentially set back efforts to build closer economic ties with China.

Recent allegations of influence-peddling by Taiwanese politicians, driven in part by investigators’ wiretaps of one lawmaker’s cellphone conversations, have stirred fear and paranoia among some political leaders.

“I’m sorry. It’s not safe to talk right now. We are being monitored,” said one political adviser within the Nationalist Party, whose leaders have both driven the investigation and have been the ones most damaged by it.

Already, Taiwan’s minister of justice has been forced out, and its high-profile legislative speaker has been expelled by his party.

The fallout could have sweeping consequences for Taiwanese politics, weakening the already unpopular administration of Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, and giving a boost to the opposition party, which is much less friendly toward mainland China.

The chain of dominoes began when lawmaker Ker Chien-ming’s guilty verdict on embezzlement charges was overturned by Taiwan’s high court.

A special investigative unit within the Taiwanese Justice Department subsequently wiretapped Ker’s cellphone, and, according to prosecutors, recorded conversations in which legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng and Justice Minister Tseng Yung-fu agreed to help Ker make sure that the overturned ruling stuck.

Both have denied the charges of meddling, but Tseng has since stepped down and Wang’s party membership was revoked Wednesday. Wang has vowed to fight his expulsion.

At the heart of the growing rift is a rivalry within the Nationalist Party between Ma, the party’s chairman, and Wang, one of its heavyweights, who has held the speakership since 1999. Their rivalry dates to 2005, when both competed to lead the Nationalist Party. They butted heads again in 2008, competing for their party’s presidential nomination.

This week, Ma called Wang’s alleged meddling into the court case “the most serious infringement in the history of Taiwan’s judiciary.”

Under Ma, Taiwan’s often fractious relationship with China has hit its calmest level in decades. But Ma has taken a beating in the polls and has one of the lowest approval ratings in Taiwanese history, at 15 percent.

The wiretapping has angered critics, who say Ma’s administration overstepped the constitution in order to oust Wang.

Ma’s party has also seen serious erosion in public support as Taiwan’s economy has struggled. And the justice minister’s ouster is at least the fifth Cabinet-level resignation under Ma this year. A defense minister left over criticism of an army trainee’s death; a replacement defense minister left over plagiarism; and a premier resigned partly because of blame for the economy.