Taiwan ruling party lawmakers have asked the island’s constitutional court to suspend a corruption trial against the First Lady which will start on Friday.
The Democratic Progressive Party’s move could help remove the single biggest threat to the power of Chen Shui-bian, the embattled president.
It is seen as part of a wider attempt to help protect him and his family from prosecution even after his last term ends in May 2008. Political analysts believe the question of who could save Mr Chen from prosecution has become key in the fight to be the DPP’s next presidential candidate.
Wu Shu-chen, Mr Chen’s wife, was indicted on graft charges in early November, and prosecutors named the president as an alleged “joint perpetrator”. Mr Chen denies the charges but has said he will step down if a court finds his wife guilty.
"We will ask the Council of Grand Justices to clearly define the immunity the constitution grants the president,” said Ker Chien-ming, the DPP’s parliamentary whip. “If this trial goes forward, it will create a precedent that political acts by the president can trigger prosecutorial investigations.”
Taiwan’s constitution grants the president immunity except from charges of treason and sedition, but fails to spell out whether this also protects the head of state from questioning, searches of his home or office, or from being named as a suspect.
Mr Ker said the DPP’s move had nothing to do with Mr Chen personally. However, observers said the complaint showed the president had regained his clout within his own party after a surprisingly strong showing of the DPP in crucial local elections a week ago.
“There are clear signs of factional politics visible in this move,” said Lo Chih-cheng, head of the political science department at Soochow University in Taipei.
After last week’s polls, the fight between the four contenders for the post of DPP candidate in the 2008 presidential election has intensified. Mr Chen has a key role because he can dismiss Su Tseng-chang, premier, one of the contenders.
Frank Hsieh, a former premier who was greatly strengthened by last week’s election, is now expected to back Mr Chen in order to be able to challenge Mr Su. “The president is seeking a candidate who would guarantee him and his family protection from prosecution after he leaves office and who has good chances to win, and Mr Hsieh is the candidate of his choice,” said an aide to Mr Hsieh.
Some lawmakers who belong to the New Movement, a powerful DPP faction which backs Mr Su, refused to sign Thursday’s complaint.
Even if the constitutional court accepts the DPP’s case, it would not be able to act quickly enough to stop the First Lady’s trial from starting Friday.