Taiwan ex-President Chen Shui-bian out of prison. Why?

Chen and his "green" Taiwan identity politics has been anathema to mainland China. But after the "blue" pro-China ruling Nationalist party lost big in local elections Nov. 29, they want to appear conciliatory and friendly ahead of next year's presidential vote. 

REUTERS
Former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian waves to supporters while leaving Taichung Prison, central Taiwan, January 5, 2015. Former Taiwanese president Chen was released from prison on Monday on a one-month parole for medical treatment, amid pressure from pro-independence opposition leaders newly emboldened by victory in local elections six weeks ago.

Taiwan’s pro-China government gave an image-boosting concession to the chief opposition party Monday by granting medical parole to former president Chen Shui-bian, who made a sensation on the island a decade ago for his Taiwan-first sentiments that brought high-volume military threats from Beijing

The move appears a conciliatory gesture after a political thrashing in late November by the more ardently pro-Taiwan "green" political forces over the "blue" pro-China ruling Nationalist party. The green victory is viewed as favorable ahead of national elections in 2016.  

Mr. Chen, president from 2000 to 2008, led the green Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), though he was later snared in scandal and sentenced to two decades in prison on graft charges. 

Today he left prison and is at a family home in southern Taiwan to receive treatment for neurological ailments, according to authorities at Taiwan's Agency of Corrections. The former lawyer, now in his mid-60s, served slightly more than six years. He was the first Taiwan president incarcerated for crimes during office – though Chen and his family have maintained the charges were politically motivated.

On Nov. 29 President Ma Ying-jeou’s ruling Nationalist Party lost nine mayoral and county magistrate elections – a potential seismic political shift on an island that Beijing has often termed a "renegade republic."

The green opposition picked up seven of those top seats, giving it strength ahead of the 2016 presidential race. 

The ruling Nationalists want to quickly close a widening a political divide, analysts say.

“It’s a good sign Ma Ying-jeou is willing to heal the political polarization,” says Wu Chung-li, research fellow at Taipei-based institute Academia Sinica. “I think this measure might increase his popularity in the near future." But Mr. Wu doubts the gesture will aid the Nationalists in the coming presidential campaign. 

Chen's incarceration has occasionally inflamed public opinion. 

“What [parole] will do is remove a burr under the saddle that has been an annoyance and remove the prospect, at least for now, that he will die in prison on Ma’s watch,” says Alan Romberg, East Asia Program director with the Stimson Institute, a think tank in Washington.

Authorities now say they have looked into the conditions of his Chen's incarceration, according to Deputy Justice Minister Chen Ming-tang. A 15-person medical team found last month that Chen’s health had deteriorated to where he needs all-day medical care. 

The ex-president made a name for himself as the first pro-Taiwan political figure to be elected to high office, dangerously chilling Taiwan-China relations. In the early 2000s Beijing often threatened Taiwan with military force if Chen's government followed through on hints that it would declare itself an independent state.

Beijing has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and insists the two sides must eventually unify. Chen angered Beijing by refusing to recognize its “one-China” policy, making most dialogue impossible.

Yet since 2008, President Ma of the Nationalist party has eased ties with both Washington and Beijing.

Ma’s government has signed 21 trade, transit and investments deals with China, seen as a boost to mutual trust and Taiwan’s half-trillion-dollar economy. But he faces domestic criticism for bringing Taiwan closer to an old enemy with a stronger military; Ma has been seen as leaning toward China's underlying design to unify China with Taiwan – despite public opinion polls here that point to a majority opposition to that goal.

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