Image: Chen Shui-bian
Wally Santana  /  AP
Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian, seen on Thursday, may be forced to quit with two years left in his term.
updated 11/3/2006 11:26:16 PM ET 2006-11-04T04:26:16

President Chen Shui-bian suffered the biggest blow of his administration Friday when prosecutors indicted his wife for corruption and said they have enough evidence to charge him, too — an announcement that could quickly end his fragile leadership.

The news sent thousands of anti-government protesters into the streets of the island’s capital, and the main opposition party said it would launch a new recall drive if Chen doesn’t resign by Monday.

Chang Wen-cheng of the Taiwan High Prosecutors’ Office — who announced that First Lady Wu Shu-chen and three aides were indicted on embezzlement, forgery and perjury charges — said there is a strong possibility that Chen will also be indicted after he leaves office.

Under Taiwanese law, a sitting president cannot be indicted other than on charges of sedition. Chen, who didn’t comment on the indictments, has said he would step down if there is evidence of wrongdoing.

Pressured to resign
Two of the largest Chinese-language newspapers — China Times and the United Daily News — ran editorials Saturday with the headline: “President Chen should step down immediately.” Both papers have opposed the president since he was elected in 2000.

Even the pro-Chen Taipei Times was reluctant to back the president and appeared to be nudging him to resign. The paper’s editorial said that clinging to power would damage the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and drag down its legislators, who will be seeking re-election soon.

If Chen quits with two years left in his second term, his outspoken and unpredictable vice president, Annette Lu, would likely take power. That could raise tensions with rival China, which reviles Lu and has called her “insane” and “scum of the nation.”

A civil war split China and Taiwan in 1949, and Beijing insists the Taiwanese must eventually unify with the mainland — a notion the staunchly pro-independence Lu rejects. China has warned it will attack the Taiwanese if they stall too long on unification, and the United States — Taiwan’s longtime supporter — might help defend the democratic island of 23 million people.

Chen’s nemesis, Nationalist Party leader Ma Ying-jeou, demanded that he resign immediately.

“He has lost the people’s trust and respect, and as he is burdened with scandals, he can no longer lead the people nor effectively represent the country,” Ma said.

Recall drive threatened
Ma said the Nationalists, the biggest opposition party, would launch a recall drive against Chen if the president did not resign by Monday.

Chen’s support base showed signs of crumbling on Friday.

Leaders of the president’s party huddled late Friday night to discuss the charges. The meeting broke up with party officials insisting that Chen explain the allegations within three days.

“We strongly demand that President Chen Shui-bian explain the unclear parts from the prosecutors’ report,” said Yu Shyi-kun, the ruling party’s chairman.

There has long been grumbling inside the president’s party that the scandal-tainted Chen has become too much of a liability and should be dumped before the 2008 presidential election.

The Taiwan Solidarity Union, a small party that backed him, said it would support a recall motion against him if it comes up in the island’s legislature.

With the small TSU’s support, Ma’s Nationalists and their People First Party ally would need the support of about a dozen lawmakers from Chen’s party. If the recall measure passed, it would be sent to the voters for approval in an islandwide referendum.

$450,000 missing
Chang, of the prosecutor’s office, said Wu took about $450,000 from the fund between 2002 and 2006, and there were no receipts accounting for the money.

Chang added the president met with prosecutors twice to discuss the handling of the fund but that serious discrepancies had emerged in his testimony.

“Chen presented documents about six cases in which secret diplomatic funds were used, but investigation by prosecutors showed that only (the documents for) two cases were accurate,” Chang said.

Friday’s announced indictment sent people into the streets of the capital, Taipei. About 3,000 anti-Chen demonstrators gathered outside the main railway station.

If Chen resigns, he would be the first Taiwanese president to quit the office. He has already made history with his election in 2000, which broke the Nationalist Party’s five-decade grip on the presidency. He was re-elected in 2004.

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