On Thursday, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan will debate an addition to the Criminal Code that would subject people who kill children under the age of 12 to a mandatory death penalty, or in exceptional cases, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Capital punishment has seen increasing public support in the wake of “random attacks” on the island. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and the president-elect Tsai Ing-wen, are now faced with the dilemma of choosing to follow their personal ideology or to bow down to public opinion.
The death penalty is a legal form of punishment in Taiwan. Though the Ma administration enacted an informal moratorium on executions, they resumed in 2010 after a three-year hiatus when the then-Justice Minister Wang Qing-feng inadvertently drew attention to the suspension by publicly announcing her refusal to sign off on executions. She was forced to step down due to public outcry, and the new minister almost immediately signed off on the executions of four death row inmates. A year later, an airman who was executed in 1997, Chiang Kuo-ching, was proven innocent of the rape and murder of a young girl by the military court. The ruling and the subsequent fallout led to discussions on the death penalty, though no substantive changes were made.
Debate over capital punishment was reignited once again this week when an unemployed man, whom the authorities believe was under the influence of drugs, murdered a four-year-old girl nicknamed Little Lightbulb in broad daylight as she was cycling down the street with her mother. The brutal killing of a child marked the third such incident on the island in five years. Just last May, an eight-year-old girl was killed in her elementary school in Taipei when an unemployed man sneaked onto the school campus. In 2012, a ten-year-old boy was murdered in the bathroom of an amusement arcade in Tainan, also by an unemployed man. All of the cases were “random killings,” where the killers picked their victims at random, and all three sparked outrage throughout the island of 23 million. the latest incident may be the final straw; as the suspect, surnamed Wang, was led into a police building, police had to shield him from angry citizens who waited outside for him.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, anger, shock, sorrow, and a lot of soul-searching were experienced by the Taiwanese. Criticisms for anti-death penalty proponents started to accumulate. Some were directed at non-governmental organizations, such as Amnesty International and the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty. Others turned their ire on politicians, primarily those in the newly ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which has traditionally supported the abolition of capital punishment. The third largest party in the parliament, the New Power Party (NPP), has already come under the fire of netizens for its supposed position on the death penalty. The NPP, which includes Legislative Member and former head of Amnesty International Taiwan Freddy Lim, was forced to call a press conference, in which its chairman Huang Kuo-chang clarified that the party would not propose policies toward abolishing the death penalty until society has reached a general consensus on the issue. Huang added that each individual has the right to decide for themselves on this issue.
The Kuomindang (KMT), which had previously tried to gradually phase out the death penalty, seems to have taken differing opinions in recent years on the issue. KMT legislator Wang Yu-ming proposed an addition to the Criminal Code that would make the crime of killing a child carry an automatic death sentence. The bill allows an exception to those with severe mental illnesses, though even in those instances the only alternative sentence a judge could give is life without the possibility of parole. While the law being debated is unlikely to pass — it is deemed by many legal experts as too extreme — the very fact that it was proposed indicates the current popular opinion on the topic. In fact, KMT legislators are also considering hosting an “anti-anti-death penalty” referendum should president-elect Tsai Ing-wen announce her support for the abolition of capital punishment.
This could be a challenge for Tsai, who will be sworn into office on May 20. Being anti-death penalty is a sentiment that is at the very least a preference for her party. Tsai’s stance on the death penalty had already been questioned during her campaign. Even though she never gave a clear answer regarding her stance, the issue was not a major point in the election, and attention to it soon petered out. However, now KMT politicians are again pressing Tsai to give a clear answer.
The DPP is in a tricky position. Faced with overwhelming support for the death penalty from the island’s citizens (polls have indicated that around 70 to 80 percent of the population support the death penalty), the party must decide whether to stand firm on their own beliefs or to follow popular mandate. It has control of the parliament, so the public will hold the DPP accountable should bills abolishing capital punishment pass during this time. Of course, it is a deeply divisive topic, and even within the DPP there are differing opinions. Nonetheless, it may prove damaging to the DPP’s support and image if it insists on abolishing the death penalty, or even continues to be vague on its position, especially since public anger is running high.
Unfortunately, even if the addendum is not passed, and the new administration manages to not explicitly express its stance on the topic, there is a chance that Tsai will face random killing incidents or similar horrific crimes again. Therefore, in the future it is possible that Tsai would need to openly confront the death penalty issue in her capacity as the president. However, while the public overwhelmingly supports capital punishment, Tsai’s choices are limited. Unless she could implement policies such as better unemployment benefits and more comprehensive mental illness programs, which substantively decrease these types of tragedies, the death penalty debate most likely is not going anywhere anytime soon. It is an especially sensitive topic for the DPP, because it stands in stark contrast to other issues where the DPP enjoys huge public support and social consensus, such as a more cautious approach to China and an emphasis on transitional justice. Failure to address this issue, or at least to attempt to reconcile its own ideology with public opinion, could become one of the major challenges faced by the incoming administration.
No matter what her stance is on the death penalty, Tsai is determined to address the underlying social problems. It seems like a good step to realizing the DPP’s ideology. This may or may not lead to increasing support for abolition of the capital punishment; only time will tell. However, there is hope that a society that is more supportive of the disadvantaged would prevent more tragedies from happening. On a card she left on Little Lightbulb’s makeshift memorial, Tsai wrote, “I will not let your sacrifice be in vain. The society has many holes, and I will do my best to fix them.”
Pei-Yu Wei is pursuing a Master’s degree in political science, with a concentration in political economy and a regional focus on East Asia, at New York University.