March 20, 2000

March 20, 2000 | Commentary on Asia

ED032000:  Fraying Nationalists Offer Taiwan's New President Greatest Challenge

With the defeat of the Nationalist Party who have ruled the island since 1949, Taiwan's President-elect Chen Shui-bian has vastly more to worry about than Beijing's sullen silence or Washington's nagging as he prepares this Monday morning for his post-election transition meeting with top advisors and aides.

Fortunately, Taiwan's political culture is mature enough that Chen's defeated foes will resist the temptation to take matters into their own hands - or urge the military to step in. The defeated Nationalists are vowing to shake-up their political machine, and Taiwan's top military officials have already pledged their allegiance to the constitutional process.

Chen, a former dissident lawyer during the 1980's who served as mayor of Taipei, didn't get even a day to savor his convincing, albeit narrow, win before his two opponents took turns throwing the country into political turmoil.

The United States' reaction hasn't helped either. U.S. President Clinton, while applauding the new step in Taiwan's democratic evolution, didn't even mention Chen's name in his comments before leaving for his tour of India and Pakistan. Clinton did take the moment as an opportunity to repeat his belief that "the election provides a fresh opportunity for both sides [of the Taiwan Strait] to reach out and resolve their differences peacefully through dialogue."

Beijing Keeps Its Cool

To its credit, Beijing's reaction to Taiwan's election of an openly avowed Taiwan-independence advocate was admirably terse: Xinhua news agency simply noted that "the election in Taiwan Province concluded on Saturday and, according to Taiwan press, Chen Shui-bian took the lead in the election."

China's State Council's statement, while increasing the rhetoric a bit, was still restrained. "No form of 'Taiwan Independence' can be permitted," the statement read. "With regard to the new Taiwan leader, we will listen to what he says, and watch what he does, to see in what direction he takes Cross-Strait relations, and then we will decide what to do."

Of course, the mainland media was still referring to Taiwan as a province and its president-elect as a "local" leader. Some observers noted that China's official press used the term "diqu-de" when referring to Chen as a "local" leader, which appeared to give him slightly higher status than the term "difang-de" used by Beijing in last month's much hyped revised White Paper on Taiwan.

Still, the clear advice from the mainland is that, unless he's willing to come as a "provincial" or "local" leader, Taiwan's president-elect should not plan on visiting the mainland despite his offer to do so in his victory speech on Saturday evening.

Chen's Real Challenge: Building a new government

But it's doubtful that the president-elect even noticed Washington's coolness, nor Beijing's tongue-biting. Perhaps surprising to many overseas observers (including some in Beijing), the mainland's ballistic missiles, new submarines and Russian destroyers will not be at the top of the president-elect's agenda this Monday morning, March 20.

The victory weekend's rowdy celebrations will now quiet down, and Chen will face the intimidating tasks of formulating the steps of Taiwan's first democratic transition of power, and, perhaps even more daunting, the terrifying task of building a new government.

The task is "terrifying" because Chen - and everybody else in Taiwan - knows that his mostly ethnic-Taiwanese Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) simply doesn't have enough talent to fill out the top levels of Taiwan's highly sophisticated, complex and vast government bureaucracy.

It is this bureaucracy which does most of the administering for a land of 22 million people and the seventh leading trading nation in the world.

From the start of his campaign, candidate Chen acknowledged that, if he won, he would form a "grand coalition" with the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party.

In admitting this, Chen was not only trying to ease voters' concerns about continuing the KMT's professional and successful economic and financial policies, but also acknowledging his own party's lack of experienced financiers, trade negotiators, law-enforcement, defense and foreign affairs experts.

The new government will need to fill these slots in order to manage a US$100 billion government, a range of multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects, and the island's US$30 billion advanced military.

On top of this, Chen knows he will have to govern by orchestrating his new administration's policies with a KMT majority in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's congress.

Following defeat, the KMT implodes

As if putting together a "grand coalition" and getting his own fractious DPP to support him is not headache enough for a Monday morning strategy session, Chen is confronting a political brain-hemorrhage: the Kuomintang Party has imploded.

Following its ignominious third-place showing Saturday night, it took just 14 hours for the KMT to administer to itself the first of what could portend a thousand suicidal cuts.

Sunday morning at 9:00, the popular ethnic-mainlander mayor of Taipei City, Ma Ying-jeow (the same man who had ousted Chen in 1998) announced he would resign from the KMT's ruling Central Committee and lead an effort to "reform" the party from outside the party's leadership.

Mayor Ma was soon joined by half-a-dozen Central Standing Committee members including the KMT's just-defeated vice-presidential nominee, Premier Vincent Wan-chang Siew. They called for the resignation of the entire KMT top leadership including the party chairman, President Lee Teng-hui himself!

President Lee convened an emergency Central Committee meeting Sunday afternoon at 3:00 pm, and by 5:00 pm the news was out that Lee had agreed to resign from the Party Chair.

President Lee apparently hopes to delay the collapse of his party by scheduling the next election of Central Committee members for September, but it is doubtful he can last much beyond the end of his presidential term on May 20.

Lee was no doubt shaken by violent demonstrations at KMT headquarters on Sunday as well as by the angry protestors at his official residence Saturday night. The demonstrators were disaffected supporters of the close-second-place vote-getter in Saturday's election, the former KMT provincial governor, James Chu-yu Soong.

They blamed Lee for forcing Soong from the party last summer and causing the KMT split that resulted in Chen's narrow victory. As they see it, President Lee seemed to have wanted the KMT to lose the election - maybe in an attempt to ensure that Taiwan' next president would continue Lee's legacy of preserving Taiwan's national identity separate from mainland China - and to them, it was a betrayal of the KMT party.

James Soong himself poured gasoline on the flames by announcing this weekend his intention to form a new political party from an alliance ethnic mainlanders, alienated voters from Taiwan's Hakka minority, the island's poor aboriginal tribes and middle-class urban voters who just want to clean-up the political system. Athough Soong professes that his new party will eschew the vocally pro-Beijing sentiments of the small China New Party (CNP), it is clear the CNP eagerly embraces Soong's vision, and CNP members were the backbone of Soong's electoral strength.

Thus, it appears politics-as-we-know-it in Taiwan is on the verge of disintegration. More than anyone else in Taiwan - including President Lee Teng-hui - President-elect Chen Shui-bian wants to keep his erstwhile tormentor, the Kuomintang Party, from a sudden collapse.

If it does collapse, Chen will have to devise a strategy to pick up the pieces for the DPP, keeping what was best in the KMT, its professional cadre, its organization and even its vast wealth, while casting aside the worst -- the cronyism, the local bosses and some say, the underworld connections.

All this will keep Chen busy for quite some time. As for mainland China, he'll mostly likely take time to worry about that at future strategy sessions.

John J. Tkacik, Jr., president of China Business Intelligence, an Alexandria, Virginia, consulting firm, with over 20 years experience in the China field. He is also a Research Fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in China Online.