March 16, 2000

March 16, 2000 | Commentary on Asia

The Ah-Bian Surprise?

It was a week filled with the sort of thing American's call an "October Surprise," last-minute bombshells designed to sway undecided voters at polling booth curtain. Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential nominee Chen Shui-bian finally managed to persuade the sainted Nobel laureate Y.T. Lee to endorse his campaign, a move that Dr. Lee tried to put off to the last minute prior to his departure overseas for scientific conferences. Dr. Lee, the only ethnic-Taiwanese Nobelist, is so highly regarded that President Lee Teng-hui is said to have offered him the premiership - and is evidently so feared that Dr. Lee's 1998 support of Chen Shui-bian for the Taipei mayorship earned him a credible death threat. Lee's endorsement encouraged other top Taiwan entrepreneurs and respected academics join in praise of Chen, all calculated to convince the wavering voter that "Ah -Bian" (as Chen is called) is a solid statesman well-suited to deal with thugs and gangsterism whether it comes from Taiwan's home-grown mafias or the Chinese Politburo.

Chen's momentum was sustained by massive rallies in southern Taiwan of 600,000 supporters, dwarfing similar efforts by ruling Kuomintang (KMT) nominee, Vice President Lien Chan. Lien had his own surprise, a new endorsement in the form of a full page "open letter" in all newspapers from none other than 102-year old Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Mme. Chiang's words turned hardened old soldiers and army veterans to dewy-eyed retainers. One grizzled sergeant in Taichung admitted to a reporter with a tear in his eye that he would now support Lien. The China New Party's gadfly nominee Li Ao wasn't impressed. He claimed he had several of Mme. Chiang's letters and the signatures didn't match the one in the newspapers.

Well . . . Lien Chan could still be confident of President Lee's support, and Lee was scheduled to deliver an "important speech" to the KMT Central Committee on Wednesday, March 15 which would give Lien that crucial home-stretch boost. But when the time came, President Lee spoke for three minutes and basically said "vote for Lien." That was it - that was the "important speech." A crush of reporters in the KMT lobby demanded from the passing President if "it's true that the KMT is abandoning Lien to save Ah-Bian?" Lee waded into their midst, advised them to "tell everyone to vote for Lien," and waded right out again, leaving them all slack-jawed and scratching their heads.

The bean-counters in the three campaigns now know - ceteris paribus - that Chen is headed for a win, but many's the slip twixt the cup and the lip, so it ain't over til it's over. The realization hit hardest in Beijing where top Politburo Taiwan-watchers convened meetings Monday and Tuesday and resolved "to use each and every opportunity and concrete action to increase the anti-Taiwan Independence pressure prior to the March 18 election." On Monday, Beijing's People's Daily ran an authoritative commentary calling for a "timetable" for reunification, the first time in an official Chinese statement. Premier Zhu Rongji told foreign reporters Wednesday morning that China would "spill blood", etc., etc., hoping to chill Taiwan voters "who tend to independence."

The biggest chill, however, didn't come from China, it came from the Taiwan stock market which completed a record-breaking swan-dive of 6.6% by close of business Monday, caught its breath Tuesday and plummeted another 2.1% Wednesday. Certainly, the sudden realization that Chen Shui-bian just might actually BE the next president was a major factor in the TAIEX's woes, but the Japanese Nikkei dropped 3% and the Korean exchange 4.1% on the same day, and the NASDAQ also lost a few hundred points, so it wasn't ALL politics.

Last, but not least in this hectic week, the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA), which a month ago everyone thought would die in the Senate, seems headed toward passage - and perhaps even a Presidential signature. The tone of debate both by Senator Torricelli and Congressman Bereuter have the smell of a deal with the White House - maybe to pass the TSEA, but scuttle Taiwan's request for Aegis destroyers. What if we got both TSEA and Aegis - that would be a real surprise.

About the Author

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

Originally appeared in China Online