March 22, 2004 | Commentary on Asia
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, eight Taiwanese
pro-democracy activists organized a human rights day march in the
southern city of Kaohsiung. When police blocked the progress of the
demonstrators (who had a permit), violence broke out. The
organizers were arrested, court-martialed for sedition, and
sentenced to between 8 and 13 years in prison. Taiwan was a
one-party dictatorship then, and governed under martial law. But
following the death in 1988 of Chiang Kai-shek's son who was then
Taiwan's president, the island swiftly democratized.
Taiwan's new democracy was admittedly young and a bit ragged around the edges leading into Saturday's presidential election, but it had all the appearances of a successful system. One reason had been the stabilizing influence of the Kuomintang (the "Chinese Nationalist Party," also known as the KMT), one of the oldest political parties in Asia, if not necessarily a particularly democratic one. After its defeat in the 2000 presidential polls by Taiwan's Democratic Progressive ("Green") party, the KMT formed a loose "Blue" coalition with other Taiwanese parties of the right which still wield significant influence in the country's legislature. The KMT coalition's most senior leaders, its dignified chairman, Dr. Lien Chan, and his vice presidential running mate, Dr. James Soong, were both respected in international circles as cultured and erudite politicians from one of Asia's most successful economies.
But that is over. On Saturday night, after a hard fought presidential campaign and a whisker-thin loss at the ballot box, the KMT coalition lashed out in a decidedly undemocratic way. The above-mentioned KMT elders abandoned the rule of law on Saturday night and Sunday by supporting--whenever they weren't leading--menacing crowds that laid siege to the Presidential Office in Taipei and abetted unrest in other cities. The election losers encouraged crowds in Taichung City to stage a midnight sit-in at judicial offices. At 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, KMT rioters in Kaohsiung broke down barricades at that city's procuratorate offices only to be repelled by a massive police presence.
Events began to spiral out of control on Saturday evening. When the last presidential vote was finally penciled in on the last hand-notated tally sheet, the KMT's Lien-Soong ticket lost to Taiwan's incumbent president, Chen Shui-bian, by a mere 29,518 votes (out of nearly 14 million). The 0.2 percent margin was surely a disappointing loss. This disappointment was no doubt compounded by deep, but unspoken, guilt that perhaps the KMT had brought the loss on itself.
THE KMT MIGHT HAVE ATTRACTED that extra margin of support it had not treated last Friday's election-eve assassination attempt on President Chen and his running mate with such callousness. The president was in Southern Taiwan on Friday on a whistle-stop motorcade city tour in an open-air Jeep when a bullet shot through the front windscreen. Rather than ripping head-on into President Chen's stomach, the bullet struck at the very instant President Chen turned to wave and carved a bloody half-inch deep groove 8 inches along his abdomen--the wound required 11 stitches. A second bullet apparently ricocheted into Vice President Annette Lu's knee. Ear-splitting strings of firecrackers masked the two pops from the assassin's pistol, and the unknown assailant (police believe there might have been a second shooter) disappeared into the crowd.
With the initial shock of the attack, Chairman Lien muttered his condolences and dispatched an aide to the hospital. But as news came that the president's wound, though deep, was superficial, the KMT campaign was seized with the prospect that a sympathy vote might cost them the election.
Almost immediately the KMT rumor machine slipped into overdrive. Private mobile phones all over Taiwan began getting text-messages that the assassination was a fraud and asked the receiver to pass it on. Soon, unsympathetic taxi drivers began telling foreigners (myself included, several times) that they heard Chen had staged the attack to gain votes. But this whispering campaign got little traction. That evening, eight hours after the president had been attacked, Jaw Shao-kang and legislator Sisy Chen, of the KMT coalition's far right wing, presided over TV talk shows which openly accused the president of faking his medical reports and clucked approvingly while others postulated that President Chen had arranged for himself to be shot in the gut. I watched two separate programs Friday evening and was appalled by the vitriol and outright lies that these people countenanced. Most Taiwanese I spoke with on voting day were equally horrified.
THIS WAS THE SUBPLOT when KMT Chairman Lien Chan had to face a crowd of thousands on Saturday evening to admit that he had lost the election. I listened to his speech which began on a dignified note: "This is an historical turning point for Taiwan," he began, and then he indicated how difficult such a close defeat was. He called for "coolness and reasonableness" (lengjing lixing). There were people crying in the audience. I was impressed by Dr. Lien's decorum and awaited his concession. But then he asserted "the shooting incident had a direct impact on the election that, coupled with many other suspicious issues, have clearly left the public with the strong impression that the election was unfair."
Lien was not willing to concede. Far from it. He then averred darkly that he did "not know how we would face the next generation if we left this injustice unrepaired." "I will file a complaint to nullify this election," Lien said. Then appeared Dr. James Soong, generally considered the éminence grise of Taiwan's "Blue" movement. Soong, too, insisted that the people of Taiwan were "cheated." Chen Shui-bian's so-called assassination was a nefarious act designed to eliminate the KMT's support with manufactured tragedy. "The election is invalid," he declared. The crowd began a chant "in-valid, in-valid, in-valid." "We will demand that every last ballot box be checked, and every last ballot be recounted," declared Soong, and the multitudes chanted "re-count, re-count, re-count."
I hurried to President Chen's campaign headquarters to hear his response. But Chen gave a gracious speech expressing "my highest respects to Mr. Lien and Mr. Soong." The president's campaign manager explained that he purposefully refrained from mentioning the Lien-Soong challenge to the election for fear of stirring the massive horn-blowing, flag-waving crowd to anger.
After the president's departure and only after his thousands of supporters had gone home, the campaign briefed foreign observers on the KMT's election challenge. The briefers--Taiwan's top lawyers populate the uppermost ranks of the Greens--explained that filing a for a recount is the KMT's right, but they could see no grounds for the challenge--not to mention that there is no recount provision in Taiwan's election law. All counting is done by election commissioners at each station in accordance with specific rules, and once the count is completed and certified, that's it. In this election, they said, the Central Election Commission has already ruled that the DPP won. The CEC noted that either side can challenge a specific polling place's vote count in the High Court, but that there must be evidence of illegal interference with the voting. Again, as far as the DPP could see, there was none.
The KMT then began to focus their public case not on the margin of their loss, but on the charge that "Chen Shui-bian cheated us with a faked assassination attempt." The accusation of a staged assassination, had already been disproved by a steady stream of interviews with the Hospital doctors, police, and body guards. Not to mention common sense. (Chen: "So, I stand in the car, and then a guy is going to shoot me with a bullet, through the windshield into my abdomen, but I should be careful to turn aside so the bullet will only cut a half-inch slice through me? . . . . What's Plan B?")
THE VITRIOL with which the story is being kept alive by the most passionate KMT old-guard appalls even younger Blue supporters. The spectacle of Dr. Lien and Dr. Soong posing absurd legal challenges to a properly conducted election and calling for the election's "invalidation" was no more worrisome than Al Gore's challenge to the 2000 Florida count. More disturbing was the way the two spun up the crowd by hinting that the president's shooting was a campaign stunt, and declaring that "the election was null" because it was "unfair."
The KMT's argument is that the "faked" shooting led Taiwan's premier to declare a military emergency--canceling leave for some 200,000 troops who didn't get to vote. Blue supporters claim that they poll well among military professionals. But they neglect to say that most of the military are young, educated Taiwanese conscripts who generally vote for President Chen's party.
In any event, "unfairness" would not have an impact on the actual vote counting, so the KMT is now focusing on irregularities. The first stab at that legal tack came just a few minutes after 2:00 a.m. on Sunday when a High Court spokesman (apparently anticipating a long night) appeared on television to report that he received faxed complaints from 21 localities and was in the process of referring the complaints to the appropriate lower local prosecutors. He didn't elaborate, but did say the lower courts were prepared to take up the cases Sunday morning. The relief demanded--according to the headline across the top of the video display was to "nullify the election."
It soon became apparent that the Blue's public case lacked substance. Ninety minutes later Taiwan TV began running a video clip of a woman bringing her two little daughters into the voting booth and letting them put her two referendum ballots into the appropriate boxes--she had already put her presidential ballot in a third box. A news reporter interviewed a former KMT Chiayi county magistrate who, seeing the clip, gasped in horror that "little children can now take a ballot and little children can now vote." The late-night crowd behind him roared in howls of indignation.
All Sunday night, Dr. Lien and Dr. Soong sat sullenly at their defeat rally in central Taipei surrounded by thousands of enflamed supporters. At 4:17 a.m., before the sky brightened, they finally arose to lead their large and boisterous crowd down the boulevards to the presidential mansion, guarded by a long a phalanx of police. Taiwan's High Court finally ordered all jurisdictions to "seal ballot boxes" as potential evidence in an effort to mollify the protesting throngs. But the throngs blocked all traffic into the governmental district on Sunday afternoon, their ranks swelled by sympathizers from outside Taipei. They were still there on Monday.
IT HAS BEEN a most disillusioning spectacle. I have seen two men whom I have admired for the past 20 years turn into hate-mongers. I watched as they incited followers to late night demonstrations, which they must have known could turn violent. They urged their supporters to demand that legitimate offices of government abdicate their responsibilities and surrender ballot boxes to repair imagined injuries. And by not urging restraint, their actions countenanced violence against law enforcement officers.
It is supremely ironic. In 1979, Taiwan's upper level KMT ministers--including minister of Communications Lien Chan and Government Information director James Soong--nodded in approval when young Taiwanese democracy activists were sentenced to eight years in prison for less than KMT leaders have done in the past two days. But times have changed. The democracy activists and defense attorneys of 25 years ago are now Taiwan's president Chen Shui-bian, vice president Annette Lu, Kaohsiung mayor Frank Hsieh , Examination Yuan president Yao Chia-wen, and labor minister Chen Chu. This time, KMT leaders countenance mob rule. But Taiwan has changed dramatically in the last quarter-century. It is unlikely that Drs. Lien and Soong will be court-martialed for their part in inciting this latest unrest, much less sentenced to prison.
It is a sign that democratic ideals have indeed taken hold in Taiwan if not in the KMT.
- John J. Tkacik Jr. is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Weekly Standard