TAIPEI - There is a palpable tension in the air as Election Day draws near for the people of Taiwan, a mixture of anxiety and excitement that has only been heightened by Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji's latest warning about the dire consequences of electing a pro-independence president. No one was surprised by the content of Zhu's message, but his strident tone caught some people off guard and underscored the potential gravity of this vote.
This is, after all, only the second democratic election the island republic has ever held. The Kuomintang (KMT) party that has ruled Taiwan for more than half a century may be voted out of office, and no one is sure how China will respond to the people's choice.
Heading down the final stretch, each of the leading candidates - Lien Chan (KMT), Chen Shui-bian (Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP), and James Soong (Independent) - is franticly wooing support. Two weeks ago, prior to a government blackout on opinion polls, Lien, Chen and Soong were in a statistical dead heat, with roughly one-third of the electorate undecided. Every night this week the candidates have been holding huge public rallies in major cities across the island, seeking a final boost of momentum as they head into the only poll that counts.
These rallies are unlike anything seen in America. The only thing that comes close are the major party conventions, but they're held only once a campaign - and indoors at that. These rallies in Taiwan, literally called "creating momentum meetings," are amazing productions. A DPP rally last Saturday night in Taichung had 150,000 people braving the rain and mud to demonstrate support for their man. Sunday night the KMT and DPP went head-to-head in Kaohsiung, with the KMT pulling in more than 100,000 supporters into the city sports park and the DPP boasting a record 400,000 on the grounds of the cultural museum. The festivities continue up to election eve, when crowds of nearly a million are expected in Taipei.
These events do not simply feature rousing stump speeches. There are fireworks, pop music, food, and a lot of partisans sporting campaign jackets, hats, flags, banners, umbrellas - anything imaginable to advertise their candidate. It's not like U.S. conventions, where a few entertaining folks dress up. Everyone's decked out. The host will rev up the crowd for a couple of hours, then the hero arrives, delivers a speech, and leads the crowd in a few cheers. When it's over, everyone packs up and moves on to the next city to do it all over again. It's high-octane pageantry, seven days a week.
The prize that awaits Saturday's winner is the right to represent the people of Taiwan in a world that for the most part denies it official diplomatic recognition; the responsibility to negotiate peaceful co-existence with a hostile neighbor who claims to be Taiwan's sovereign; and the challenge to curb the misuse of money in Taiwan's maturing political system. Each would be daunting challenge in itself.
Taiwan-China relations is the issue on which the election will most likely turn, and each candidate has explained to voters how he would create a new and peaceful relationship with China. But as Beijing turns up the heat, all signs point toward a victory for Chen Shui-bian, the most independence-minded candidate. Indeed, Beijing's choice of coercion over conciliation is apparently backfiring, with every hostile missive boosting Chen's fortunes and putting pro-Beijing candidate James Soong on the defensive in an effort to show he is not overly beholden to Zhu and company.
This is as it should be. The people of Taiwan deserve to exercise their hard-fought right to popular sovereignty without interference from Beijing. The free world should congratulate Taiwan on its democratic progress and prepare to work with the people's newly elected leader.
Stephen J. Yates is a former senior policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.