is taiwan’s election. something that does affect mainland china and possibly the relationship between US and China. but it’s kind funny how this whole thing is filled with conspiracy (reminds me of the last election in america). it definitely made the top news for quite a few days. it seems to be a big mess but i agree people’s reaction is demonstrating great democracy. despite the outcries and disapproval, it seems chen shui-bian had won again. chen’s all for taiwan’s independence but he’s lost much support over the past four years. i like how corbett puts it, people want change, but they also want stability. what will be the future for taiwan and mainland’s problem and what role will the US play in it? it’s such a mystery.
Chen Shui-bian survives an assassination attempt and wins a disputed election. He faces a constrained future.
By George Wehrfritz
March 29 issue – Many in the crowd expected a mournful concession speech. But when Kuomintang presidential hopeful LienChan mounted the stage at his campaign headquarters last Saturday evening in Taipei, he spoke with anger, not sadness. He started by implying that a Friday assassination attempt targeting his rival, President Chen Shui-bian, was not a real attack but a campaign stunt. Then he questioned the results of a nationwide vote he had just lost by a razor-thin margin. “This was an unfair election,” he told thousands of energized supporters. “We will submit a lawsuit to declare the election invalid.”
With that, Taiwan’s young democracy entered an unprecedented political crisis. The Central Election Commission quickly declared Chen the winner. But the KMT filed a legal challenge and on Sunday the Taiwanese high court ordered all ballot boxes sealed as a possible prelude to a recount. There were election protests across the country: thousands of people turned out at the presidential palace, and scuffles broke out between demonstrators and police in Kao-hsiung, the country’s second largest city, and Tai-chung. Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party supporters branded Lien and his running mate, James Soong, as “sore losers.” Yet even they acknowledged that the election, in its closeness and divisiveness, echoed America’s controversial 2000 vote. “I think there are some parallels with Florida,” says Joseph Wu, a senior adviser to President Chen. “But [losing] is a fact of life. The theory of democracy is that you can win with 50.001 percent. That’s the rules of the game.”
Of course, there’s winning—and then there’s winning. If the margin of victory had been greater, or if the assassination attempt hadn’t presumably spawned a sympathy vote for the incumbent, Chen would have emerged from this election with a relatively clear mandate to take Taiwan further down the road to independence. Before the election, analysts had warned that a Chen victory might even spell the end of the once omnipotent KMT, as party members were slowly ousted from positions of power in the bureaucracy and hounded in the courts over financial scandals. Both developments could have exacerbated tensions with China, and potentially destabilized the region.
But now, even if Chen’s victory is upheld in the courts, he faces a decidedly constrained future. The referendum he had called to boost Taiwan’s defenses in reaction to a Chinese missile buildup—irking both Washington and Beijing—failed to pass. And, as George W. Bush did in 2000, he now faces an electorate split down the middle, with half questioning his legitimacy as national leader. The opposition, which had unified in a coalition of convenience in order to defeat Chen, may in fact be emboldened by the feeling that it was robbed—and by ongoing court challenges. It has more votes than the DPP in Parliament, and can stymie any major legislative initiatives.
All Taiwan seemed stunned by the political deadlock. Days before the election, insiders in both parties had predicted Lien the likely winner, by a margin of up to 5 percent. Then the ground shifted last Friday, less than 24 hours before the polls opened. At 1:45 p.m. in the southern city of Tai-nan, someone fired at least two shots at an open jeep carrying Chen and his vice president, Annette Lu. One bullet grazed the president’s torso; the other struck his running mate in the knee as she waved to the crowd. Neither was hurt seriously, yet the attack galvanized their supporters and apparently pushed undecided voters into their camp. The next day Taiwanese jammed roads, packed trains and queued outside voting stations with unanticipated fervor. The result: Chen triumphed by less than 30,000 votes—out of more than 13 million cast—a victory margin of just 0.24 percent. Some 337,000 ballots were declared invalid for still-unclear reasons, a suspiciously high number and the basis for the KMT’s court challenge.
Beyond any sympathy vote, the election was largely a referendum on Taiwan’s relations with China. Chen is a strong opponent of the mainland’s efforts to claim sovereignty over democratic Taiwan. Lien has suggested that he might accept Taiwan as part of a Greater China, though he placed most of the emphasis during his campaign on stronger commercial ties between the cross-strait rivals. In his acceptance speech late Saturday, as he did when he won four years ago, Chen called for “a new era of peace in cross-strait relations.” He wants to establish direct air and sea links with the mainland, a package he is expected to formally propose in his May 20 Inaugural address.
His thin margin of victory may instead sustain the stalemate with Beijing. Chinese state media remained studiously silent after Chen was shot; on Friday CCTV led its 7 p.m. news with a story about former president Jiang Zemin’s attending a nuclear industry trade show. Facing a negotiating partner with a weak mandate, Beijing has little incentive to offer any compromises of its own. Most analysts think Chinese leaders will initially continue to try to undermine Chen by refusing to engage him, as they have done since 2000. “Deadlock will mean procrastination on the China issue,” says S. H. Lo, a political scientist at the University of Hong Kong. Establishment of direct transport links “will be delayed for the medium term,” he adds, while “[harsh] rhetoric and verbal attacks will continue for some time to come.”
Similarly, Taiwan’s own political culture is likely to turn more venomous. The Taiwanese people have been polarized in recent years by the issue of identity, which pits Taiwanese nationalists in the DPP against KMT supporters who identify themselves as Chinese. The varying reactions to the attempt on Chen’s life illustrate just how wide the political schism has become. Kang Zuo-hsin, a 65-year-old house painter and Chen supporter, was so upset by the news that he rose at dawn on Election Day and took to the streets on his scooter to rally support for the president. “I went riding around to see all my friends and relatives,” he said while resting briefly outside a polling station in Taipei County. “So many people were still sleeping. I told them: ‘Today is the day. You have to wake up [and vote]!’ “
KMT loyalists, on the other hand, reacted to the attack against Chen with skepticism. Many, like marketing manager Yvonne Lo, called it a publicity stunt: “This is a very ugly political trick,” she said on election eve. Within hours of the assault, KMT honchos were demanding a full accounting of the incident, and some pundits were going further, alleging that the attack was “staged” to garner Chen sympathy votes. “I understand some of the international media used rather sensational headlines such as ‘assassination attempt’ and so on,” opposition campaign manager Ma Ying-jeou said four hours after the incident. “But so far, we haven’t got enough evidence.” Some of the sentiments expressed echoed the pungent anti-Clinton rhetoric of the late 1990s. One pro-Lien voter, describing having seen Chen on television casting his ballot, said, “I left because I couldn’t watch. I don’t trust him. I don’t trust his wife. I don’t trust anything about them.”
That kind of vitriol will not be easily diluted. The KMT’s legal challenge puts the election in the hands of judges, who must rule in time for a new president to be inaugurated on May 20. Some experts see the suit as a desperate act of self-preservation on Lien’s part, and question the stridency of —his response. “I think he has demonstrated that he’s not a leader and shouldn’t be in government,” says Australian Taiwan specialist Bruce Jacobs of Monash University in Melbourne. Lien’s aim, he adds, is to galvanize his fragile coalition by portraying the DPP victory as illegitimate, shifting blame for the loss from his own shoulders. The strategy may yet work. “The reason we lost was extraordinary, so I don’t think we’ll split,” Kelvin Hsu, 25, says of the opposition coalition. “If the shooting hadn’t happened we would have won by 5 percent. We will become more united.”
At some point, though, the narrow interests of coalition partners Lien and Soong could clash with those of their younger comrades. Analysts say that the next generation has greater incentive to focus on rebuilding the KMT than on dragging out the election. Cracks in the KMT-led alliance are already appearing. When Lien moved to declare the election results invalid, his own campaign manager Ma, Taipei’s popular mayor, kept silent. Another younger party man, lawmaker Wang Jyng-ping, was not onstage at the rally. Both Ma and Wang represent moderate groups within the KMT that are likely to oppose any strategy seen as weakening democracy on Taiwan. “I don’t think they’ll be deeply sympathetic,” says Jacobs. “The party could fall apart over this, or the younger guys could step in and fix it up by instituting real reform.”
Opposition disarray may help Chen a little. But without a majority in the legislature, he faces a tough slog. Everything from cabinet appointments to policy initiatives to his efforts to engage the mainland are sure to become objects of partisan struggle. That’s exactly what Chen encountered during his first term after winning the presidency in a three-way race in 2000, something many voters had complained of in the past four years. He had hoped for more: a clear mandate to rule.
Even if the courts rule the election results valid, the furor is sure to be rekindled as key legislative elections scheduled for December approach. In the meantime, the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination attempt made on Chen and Lu will only grow more elaborate, unless the crime is solved to the public’s satisfaction. Investigators are exploring an intriguing, if bizarre, theory: that gangsters who had wagered on Lien sought to win by killing the president. If so, they achieved just the opposite, handing Chen a narrow victory. At what price, Taiwan is now going to find out.
With Sarah Schafer in Beijing and Alexandra A. Seno in Hong Kong
© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.