March 17, 2000 | Commentary on Asia
The Taiwan Election: Democracy on Steroids
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
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
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
Election Year Lightning
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
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 lightning striking twice.
Well, lightning 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
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"
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
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
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
Originally appeared on China Online