March 17, 2000

March 17, 2000 | Commentary on Asia

ED031700a:  The Taiwan Election: Democracy on Steriods

Democracy in Taiwan is fully caffeinated. It tingles, makes you nervous, gets the blood pumping through the veins. Taiwan's 22 million people include 15 million voters -- of whom 75% are expected to vote tomorrow in the island's second presidential election.

Only a year ago, Taiwan's political system seemed sedate and predictable. President Lee Teng-hui was poised to anoint his vice president, Lien Chan, as a successor, and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had fixed on its just-defeated mayor of Taipei, Chen Shui-bian, as its likely standard-bearer, and the likely loser.


Now Lien seems to be the underdog and Chen the winner in what arguably could end up the tightest three-way race in political history. Let's look back now and see how Taiwan got here. After Saturday's election we can look ahead to see where the new president will take Taiwan, the mainland, and other countries, including the United States, whose fates are intertwined with the island's.


Election Year Lightening


A year ago, Vice President Lien's successful election as president seemed like a lead-pipe cinch. He presumably would have the full backing of the entrenched, filthy-rich and highly experienced ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party.


Chen, on the other hand, could only boast - like the late Will Rogers - of belonging to no "organized political party" because he was a member of the DPP. To this day - one day before the Taiwan presidential balloting, the DPP remains riven by factionalism, with the former DPP chair, Shih Ming-the, offering Chen only luke-warm support.


A year ago, the only way on earth that Chen could ever hope to win would be the same way he lucked into the Taipei mayorship in 1994 - by getting the KMT to split dead-even down the middle, leaving him with a 42% plurality. Twelve months ago the chances of that happening again seemed like lightening striking twice.


Well, lightening has struck. It has been an absolutely perfect alignment of the planets which brought Chen to face off against the only two rivals in all Taiwan who could split the KMT right down the middle.


On one side is Vice President Lien, a charisma-challenged half-Taiwanese/half-mainlander politician-cum-millionaire scion of an aristocratic Taiwan family. Lien represents the mainstream, business-oriented, competent bureaucratic wing of the KMT.

On the other side is the former Taiwan provincial governor, James Chu-yu Soong, a dynamic reformist who promises the Herculean task of cleaning up the KMT's "black gold" politics, local slang for the party's ties to gangsters, corruption and illegal financial transactions. Soong is a mainlander, however, and represents the pro-China, Chiang Kai-shek wing of the KMT.


As luck would have it, President Lee absolutely detests Soong - and therefore so does Lien. Lien and Soong have been beating each other's political brains out since November, with Lien striking a mortal wound in December by revealing Soong's ill-gotten political gains and undermining his reputation as a "clean-government" reformer.


Soong's disillusioned ethnic-Taiwanese supporters, however, didn't turn to Lien, they drifted off to Chen Shui-bian. Poll after poll show that the constant intra-KMT battles have stabilized with Lien and Soong splitting the party dead even.


Chen can hardly believe his luck. His Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) began life as a staunch advocate of Taiwan's formal independence from China, but its support has been built on demands for clean government, law and order, sweeping away organized crime, and perhaps most important - focusing government attention on social reforms, welfare, health care, and the environment.


But the issue isn't "local politics" anymore. Chen, Lien and Soong have battled to a virtual three-way tie with 25% of the voters still undecided as of last week. And the undecided voters are stuck on one thing - relations with China.


Each of the top three candidates has spent the last two months trying to convince the electorate that he is best suited to deal with the mainland, and further, to convince voters that his opponents will either cause a war, or Taiwan's surrender.

Politics on steroids


Taiwan's election has it all. It has life-and-death issues of national survival, political rivalries, ethnic division, colorful personalities. That's caffeinated democracy. What we're seeing now is a political system on steroids. Taiwan has seen the sudden emergence of highly sophisticated polling, extensive grass-roots organization in all camps; it has dirty tricks, lies, half-lies, innuendo, smears, mud-slinging.


It has campaign strategists, high-tech propaganda with TV commercials showing missile launches and somber Taiwanese boys marching off to war. The newspapers scream with headlines that China will invade, or "spill blood" or nuke the United States.

The vast wealth of the Kuomintang has been exposed (it has between US$2.5 and US$6.6 billion - yes, billion - in its coffers).

Campaign workers for each candidate canvass every street, boulevard and alley way in every city, county, village and hamlet - on the plains, in the mountains, on the off-shore islands, everywhere, firing-up the voters.


Then there are the big-name endorsements. Madame Chiang Kai-shek, now nearly 103 years old, has come out for Vice President Lien, or at least there are ads in the newspapers saying she did, complete with her signature - a suspiciously firm signature for a centenarian.


Taiwan's most respected scientist - indeed, the most respected man in Taiwan after President Lee Teng-hui himself - has boosted support for Chen Shui-bian. A phalanx of crime-fighting prosecutors and former justice ministers supports James Soong.


All eyes are now focused on President Lee, who insists that he supports Lien, but his lack of passion suggests to many that his heart is with his fellow Taiwanese, Chen Shui-bian. Rumors and whispering campaigns have swept the back-streets of Taiwan that President Lee really wants Chen to win, and last-minute holdouts are moving in Chen's direction.


Thousands of pollsters have Taiwan's body-politic on a 24-hour EKG. Just today, Soong's numbers say - go to Southern Pingtung to shore up support among the military families there. Lien and Chen have rushed to Taipei where they battle for the ethnic-Taiwanese vote.


What will tomorrow's election's mean in the end? Plenty. The vote will set Taiwan's course for the future, both in its relations with China and in the direction of the island's historic democratic experiment. Sometimes, a democracy on steroids can build a strong body, other times it can cause a heart-attack.

But in the words of Scarlett O'Hara, "I'll think about that tomorrow."


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

Related Issues: Asia

Originally appeared on China Online.