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TAIWAN'S PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION: a new era for Taiwan and for cross-Strait relations.

Lin Min and Maria Galikowski comment on the outcome of the March 2000 presidential election in Taiwan.

On 18 March, Taiwan held an election for a new President. It turned out to be an election that promises to have a significant impact not only on political and economic developments in Taiwan itself but also on cross-Strait relations, as well as on the stability and security of the whole Asia-Pacific region. It resulted in a dramatic change in Taiwan's political power configuration, as the opposition DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) candidate, Chen Shui-bian, defeated his rivals by winning almost 40 per cent of the votes, wresting the Presidency, the highest office in the land, from its KMT (Nationalist Party) incumbent. The election process ran relatively smoothly and cleanly, though with some local irregularities. The three main rival candidates, the DPP's Chen Shui-bian, the KMT's Lien Chan, and the independent, James Soong, campaigned on different platforms. Chen, ex-Mayor of Taipei, emphasised his youth, his clean image, and his opposition to the corrupt, stale KMT regime, represented by Lien Chan. As Vice-President, Lien was the choice of the then KMT President, Lee Teng-hui. Lien stressed his political experience, and his ability to maintain stability and prosperity. James Soong is the ex-Secretary-General of the KMT and former Governor of Taiwan Province, a position abolished by Lee Teng-hui, who feared Soong's rising popularity, which caused a great deal of friction between the two, and resulted in Soong's departure from the KMT, and his decision to run for the Presidency as an independent. Soong stated during the election campaign that he would go beyond the narrow interests of the two main parties, and represent the hopes and wishes of the ordinary people of Taiwan.

The three candidates' popularity ratings were fairly even virtually right up to the end of the campaign. During electioneering, Soong was accused by the KMT of embezzling party funds for his own personal use, which seriously affected his early lead position in the opinion polls. Chen was attacked by Lien and Soong as a reckless advocate of Taiwanese independence, which threatened to bring war and disaster upon the island. Lien, for his part, was never able to shake off his lacklustre image, and was criticised by both Chen and Soong for being a continuation of the old guard, ie, for maintaining the status quo, and being incapable of carrying out further reforms. The three vied for a leading position by appealing to mainstream supporters, projecting themselves as responsible, forward-looking and consensus-seeking, and by raising a number of serious policy issues regarding future political and economic reform, and cross-Strait relations. Near the end of the campaign, it was the open support from the Nobel Laureate and President of Taiwan's Academica Sinica, Lee Yuan-tseh, who enjoys a high reputation in Taiwan, as well as from several other prominent figures in the community, that boosted Chen Shui-bian's popularity ratings, and ultimately led to his election victory.

An additional contributing factor to Chen's victory is that on polling day, many voters, in order to ensure that their least favourite candidate did not get elected, switched allegiance from Lien Chan to Soong or Chen. Thus, by abandoning Lien, voters actually ensured that both Chen and Soong received a substantially higher percentage of the votes than Lien (Chen with 39.3 per cent, Soong with 36.8 per cent, and Lien with 23.1 per cent, and the remaining two candidates with less than 1 per cent of the votes). The margin between Chen and Soong was approximately 310,000 votes.

Covert support

It was believed by many in Taiwan that the KMT's Lee Teng-hui, though openly endorsing Lien, his own party's candidate and chosen heir, actually lent behind-the-scenes support to Chen. There may be a certain truth to this, as Lee was less critical towards Chen than Soong during the election campaign (it was, in fact, Soong who became the main target of the KMT's campaign attacks). In addition, several of Lee's close friends came out openly to support Chen in the last few days before polling. It is certainly interesting to note that of those voters who defected from the Lien camp, more than two-thirds of their votes went to Chen, and only around one-third to Soong.

The election result thus indicates that Chen won his victory due to a split between Soong and Lien, both of whom drew the majority of their votes from KMT supporters. So, in a sense, it was divisions within the KMT that opened the way for Chen's triumph. At the same time, however, Chen's garnering of almost 40 per cent of the total votes signifies that the opposition DPP has clearly gone a long way in transforming itself from a street-fighting dissident group to a respectable political alternative, now entrusted with the power to lead Taiwan into the new millennium.

Historical significance

One cannot overestimate the historical significance of this presidential election; it is a milestone in the process of Taiwan's democratisation, the first time in a Chinese-speaking region that the governing power has been peacefully transferred to an opposition party without any major disruption or social and political upheavals. The KMT, which has governed Taiwan for 55 years, and which has vast interests in preserving its power, must be given credit for, by and large, observing the rules and principles of the democratic process, and accepting defeat at the ballot box. It is a good indication of the gradual maturing of a young East Asian political democracy, and demonstrates that the transition from an undemocratic regime to a more liberal, open and democratic system can be achieved through an evolutionary and peaceful process, and can be led even by a dominant party, with a strong authoritarian legacy.

The change of power in Taiwan, as a result of this election, will complete the next important stage of Taiwan's democratisation; it will further the development of a more diverse and pluralist civil society, and lead to the establishment of a normal pattern of political competition between various interest groups. It will also neutralise aspects of the state apparatus, such as the armed forces, security and intelligence organisations, the judicial system and the civil service, which, to a large extent, have hitherto been subject more to the will of one single party, the KMT, than to impartial state institutions. The demarcation line between party and state, which had been blurred for many years under KMT rule, will now be much more clearly delineated, and the unholy alliance between money, the local political mafia, and power elites, on which the KMT traditionally relied heavily, will also be broken. Chen Shui-bian vowed in the campaign that, if elected, he would get rid of Taiwan's deeply-rooted political graft and corruption, and there will be more social and political changes in the areas of parliamentary, electoral, legal and educational reforms.

Balanced approach

There will also be a more balanced approach between economic development and environmental protection. The DPP is proud of its green credentials, as it has, in the past, strongly opposed Taiwan's use of nuclear power and the setting up of various heavily polluting industries. Chen has also promised to increase welfare spending and reduce the gap between rich and poor. In addition, the new regime will accelerate all aspects of the Taiwanisation process initiated by Lee Teng-hui, and Taiwan's political and cultural identity will be defined in a way that separates it even further from its Chinese past.

But one of the most important changes is the realisation that the old style of politics, represented by the old guard, who carried a heavy historical burden, has now been replaced by a new consensus-seeking, middle-of-the-road approach, adopted by the new generation of political leaders in Taiwan, and typified by the 49-year-old Chen and Taipei's Mayor, Ma Ying-jeou. These politicians, unlike their predecessors, are more acutely aware of the need to listen to the ordinary citizens of Taiwan, and seemingly more inclined to adopt a populist approach, rather than relying on the traditional, top-down approach of the Chinese political decision-making process. They have become more open-minded and more flexible, capable of adapting to a changing domestic and international environment.

Chen's background

The newly elected President, Chen Shui-bian, was born in 1951, in postwar Taiwan. He came from a poverty-stricken rural family but, largely through his own efforts, he won a place at the prestigious National Taiwan University, subsequently becoming a professional lawyer. He was drawn into politics by first acting as a defence lawyer for the founding fathers of the DPP, an early group of opposition figures during the 1970s, when Taiwan was still under the heavy authoritarian rule of Chiang Ching-kuo's KMT. After becoming a member of the DPP, he swiftly rose through the ranks, ending up as a key figure in the standing group of the party's central committee, and contesting and winning positions as a legislator and Mayor of Taipei. Two years ago, he lost his mayoral seat to the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou, but that defeat did not dent his ambition and drive with regard to securing the highest position in Taiwan.

With a group of young advisers, he focused single-mindedly on winning the presidential election by developing new policy options, modelled on Tony Blair's `Third Way', or a new middle-road platform. He carefully cultivated his image as a viable alternative to the KMT candidate, projecting himself as a genuine successor to Lee Teng-hui, who initiated the democratisation process in Taiwan, and contrasting himself to Lien Chan, who comes from a well-established family, and enjoys many privileges and personal connections. Chen portrayed himself as a representative of ordinary Taiwanese, with whom he claimed to share a deep affinity.

This strategy proved to be highly successful, as evidenced by the fact that most native Taiwanese, particularly those living in southern Taiwan and in rural areas, and many young voters, gave their support to Chen in the election. They firmly identify him as the second native Taiwanese leader, after Lee Teng-hui, someone who has reversed the power relationship between the mainlanders and the native Taiwanese that has existed during the last 55 years. Chen actually symbolises the popular demand among native Taiwanese to assert their collective self as the masters of their own destiny. It is a crucial factor underlying the Taiwanese political process, and it played a decisive role in both this and the last presidential elections.

Conciliatory stance

Chen has been conciliatory since his election victory. He has stated that he will be a President for all the people, not just the 40 per cent who voted him into power, and has even declared that he is willing to cease participation in DPP activities, in order to be a President beyond narrow party interests. He has also invited the Nobel Laureate, Lee Yuan-tseh, to head a new Cabinet and a new state policy advisory group, consisting of representatives from all the major political parties, to help him formulate both domestic and cross-Straits policy.

Chen's victory will inevitably alter the political landscape of Taiwan. With the DPP as the ruling party, Chen will command huge political resources to first consolidate his power base and then carry out his policies. But he and the new government will also face some serious challenges; as Chen received fewer than 40 per cent of the votes, he has less of a mandate than Lee Teng-hui, who received more than half of the votes in the previous presidential election, and he needs to court the 60 per cent of voters who did not support him in the election. As he has promised not to dissolve the legislature, which has the power to enact or veto the government budget and other important pieces of legislation, and in which his DPP party holds less than half the seats, he needs co-operation from other parties in order to see any reforms through to fruition. And even within the DPP itself, the transition from an oppositional to a governing party will certainly require some internal adjustments, since the party consists of various factions across a wide ideological spectrum. Some of the more radical and idealistic demands from certain quarters of the party will need to be reconciled with the harsh political reality.

Polling the second highest number of votes, James Soong, a charismatic and popular figure, who has accumulated much political capital through his years as the Secretary-General of the KMT and Governor of Taiwan Province, has become a political force to be reckoned with. On the night of the election, many of his supporters urged him to form a new political party that would maintain the political momentum he had achieved during the campaign.

New party

Soong's new party, formed just a few days after the election, is highly likely to become a major player on Taiwan's political scene. He emphasises that this party, in comparison with the DPP and KMT, will have a more flexible organisational structure, modelled more on that of a voluntary organisation than on a Leninist party. It will also aim to attract people across the widest possible ethnic and ideological boundaries. It could quite conceivably replace the KMT as the main opposition party by absorbing both New Party supporters as well as disenchanted KMT supporters, in light of the fact that these two established parties were so severely demoralised and fragmented after the presidential election campaign. But the key to Soong's future success is whether he will be able to attract wide native Taiwanese support. As a politician of mainland origin, Soong still needs to convince many of the native Taiwanese that he is `one of them', rather than someone with strong links to the old regime. But the dilemma he faces is that he needs to draw his support from the KMT camp, whilst still appearing to distance himself from his KMT past.

One of the most important consequential changes of the presidential election is the almost certain gradual demise of the KMT, a party now facing the deepest crisis in its hundred years' history. In 1949, the KMT suffered military defeat at the hands of the Communists on mainland China; 55 years on, the KMT has been defeated again, this time by the DPP, and at the ballot box. Certainly, the KMT has been transformed in the last decade or so from a rigid, authoritarian Leninist-style party, with a heavy historical legacy, and dominated by individuals of mainland Chinese origins, to a more open, more reform-minded and a more Taiwanese-oriented party. This is due largely to Lee Teng-hui, who had the will to initiate the `Taiwanisation' of the party. Nevertheless, as a party in power for more than half a century, its recent reform has been of a limited nature, and some fundamental problems have still not been properly addressed. The democratic process within the party has been compromised, as Lee Teng-hui's popularity and authority as Chairman of the KMT has run counter to the further reform of the party.

Nevertheless, Taiwan's democratisation process cannot be imagined without the KMT's willingness to liberalise and loosen its grip on power, and it, together with the opposition parties, has created a velvet revolution, which has fundamentally changed the political landscape in Taiwan. It is ironic that the party that has contributed so much to this peaceful transition, and has also maintained remarkable levels of economic prosperity, even during the Asian financial crisis, should now fall victim to the very system it was instrumental in establishing, allowing voters to express their antipathy towards the dominant political party of the last half century.

Drastic measures

With the election defeat, strong voices were raised in the KMT regarding the need to introduce more drastic measures in order to reform the party further. Some individuals even led street demonstrations in an attempt to force Lee and the present party leadership to relinquish their positions immediately. Lee, under pressure, subsequently resigned from the chairmanship, and was replaced by Lien Chan, who has become the acting Chairman of the KMT and convenor of the KMT's reform group. The deepest fear Lee had, which also explains his initial reluctance to resign immediately after the election defeat, was the return of James Soong to the KMT (Soong has, in fact, already ruled out any such possibility).

With Lee's departure, there will be no-one in the KMT of sufficient stature and charisma to re-invigorate the party. The rather colourless Lien Chan will certainly face an uphill battle, and he is likely to be more of a transitional figure. Lee's departure has already, in fact, caused a great deal of ill-feeling and friction amongst the different KMT factions. The only hope for the KMT is to pass the torch on to the younger generation of leaders, such as the youthful, charismatic Mayor of Taipei, Ma Ying-jeou, though, with his mainland origins, he is handicapped in terms of having a broad appeal amongst the native Taiwanese.

The most likely scenario for the KMT is a further split between the factions, and the party may gradually wither through losing key members and grass-roots support to both the DPP and James Soong's newly formed party. With the gradual demise of the KMT, Taiwan's politics will enter a new stage -- a post-Lee Teng-hui era -- during which the political scene will be more diverse, more colourful, but also more unpredictable.

One of the most significant consequences of the demise of the KMT is the symbolic reconfiguration of Taiwan's historical relationship with mainland China. AS the KMT originated in mainland China, was the governing party on both sides of the Taiwan Strait prior to 1949, and has ruled Taiwan since that date, it actually constitutes a symbolic institutional link with the mainland. The party never totally rejected that historical legacy. But its gradual demise could now have a serious impact on cross-Strait relations.

Central theme

The cross-Strait relationship has consistently been one of the central themes in Taiwan's political elections, and the latest round of presidential elections has been no exception. During the campaign, the three main candidates tried to play safe, to reassure voters that they would be the best choice to maintain the peace, stability and security of Taiwan in its relations with mainland China. In particular, the DPP candidate, Chen Shui-bien, went to great lengths to reduce the fears of voters by toning down the old DPP rhetoric concerning Taiwan's independence. He has repeatedly emphasised during and after the election that he will not declare formal independence, unless Taiwan is attacked by mainland China, and he will not alter the present constitution. That means he will not change the status quo in terms of Taiwan's relations with China, and he has also expressed his wish to negotiate with the mainland to find a peaceful solution to the tension and conflict between the two sides.

One of the most important signals from the DPP since the election has been a proposal put forward by a member of the executive group of the party's Central Committee, and supported by a number of prominent party figures. The proposal aims to amend a number of key items in the DPP's constitution relating to the formal declaration of Taiwan's independence. No doubt, the proposal will be hotly debated within the DPP, but the fact that it was raised at all, and received considerable support, is a good sign of the DPP's pragmatic transition to a more responsible governing party.

It has been clearly acknowledged by Chen Shui-bien and many in the DPP that the smooth transition of power, maintaining economic and political stability in Taiwan, relies primarily on a stable relationship with the mainland. Chen has even declared that the search for cross-Strait peace is his highest goal, his ultimate concern, and his moral duty. He has also talked about relaxing the KMT's policy on Taiwan's investment in and direct links with China, including transport, postal-telecommunications and trade, as well as establishing cross-Strait confidence-building measures. In this way, he hopes to build a more mutually beneficial relationship with Beijing. But he has also been adamant in his refusal to accept Beijing's `one country, two systems' formula, and he will not compromise Taiwan's de facto sovereignty. He is willing to discuss the `one China' principle, but is not prepared to take it as a precondition for negotiations, a stance that will bring him into conflict with mainland China's position, since China has repeatedly emphasised that the `one China' policy cannot be compromised; anyone who rejects it cannot enter into negotiations with Beijing.

China's tactics

It is the case that Chen, a pro-independence politician, was Beijing's least favourite candidate for President. During the campaign, China attempted to influence the election outcome; it first released its white paper on Taiwan, which clearly states that China will be forced to use military means to solve the Taiwan issue, if any one of three possible scenarios arise. In addition to the two scenarios mentioned previously by Beijing on many occasions, namely, the formal independence and foreign occupation of Taiwan, the third is new, and relates to Taiwan's indefinitely prolonging separation by refusing to sit at the negotiation table in order to find a peaceful solution. This third point reflects Beijing's frustration at Taiwan's reluctance to enter into any substantive political dialogue over the issue of sovereignty.

China has also realised that its softly, softly approach during the last twenty years has failed to make any real headway in its unification efforts. On the contrary, Taiwan has been drifting further away, and the gap between the two has been widening instead of narrowing. Though a close economic relationship exists between the two, they have been growing further apart politically and culturally. Beijing is anxious to see a new approach to reverse that trend. Beijing has never, however, given up hope of a peaceful re-unification with Taiwan. In its white paper, military means are put forward only as a last resort and ultimate deterrent, rather than a preferred option. In addition, Beijing acknowledges that Taiwan is an equal partner in negotiations.

It was clear during this presidential election campaign that China had learned a valuable lesson from the previous election four years ago. On this occasion, instead of mounting large-scale military exercises, it used more restrained means to warn the Taiwanese people not to risk their prosperity and security by voting for pro-independence candidates. Beijing responded strongly in the last few days of the campaign, when it was looking increasingly likely that Chen Shui-bien would win the election, but China's Premier Zhu Rongji's stonewalling tactics apparently backfired and even increased the level of support for Chen.

Better communication

It should also be pointed out that on this occasion, Beijing and Washington seem to have had much better communication than during the previous Taiwanese presidential election, as both sides have a much clearer understanding of each other's intentions and bottom line. They were this time able to avoid a serious military crisis, in contrast to 1996 when US aircraft-carriers were dispatched to the Taiwan Strait in response to missile exercises staged by the mainland. And both sides, in fact, co-operated in terms of containing the impact of Lee Teng-hui's special state-to-state relations' concept, put forward last year, which was in reality a theoretical basis for Taiwan's independence.

By confirming its `one China' policy and labelling Lee as a troublemaker, the United States has reduced the strength of response from Beijing to Lee's formula. Immediately after the election, US envoys visited both Beijing and Taipei to urge restraint and caution, and encourage both sides to re-open dialogue. By relieving Beijing's deep suspicions and fears regarding US support for Taiwanese independence aspirations, the US can expect a much more reasonable response from Beijing in dealing with the Taiwan issue.

Beijing has now resigned itself to the fact that it needs to face Chen and the DPP as political reality. Both sides will need to tread a delicate path, if various crisis scenarios are to be avoided. As there has hitherto been little contact between China and the DPP, the two need time to establish smooth channels of communication. Chen's election may not inevitably result in crisis, as it could also open up new opportunities and new options, and new perspectives of dealing with the complex issue of cross-Strait relations. At least the DPP does not have the same kind of heavy historical legacy as the KMT, and it may be able to go beyond the old pattern and find new common ground to tackle the various problems.

Breathing space

It is now quite clear that both sides have become more conciliatory, as the mainland has responded to Chen's statements regarding cross-Strait relations by saying that it needed not only to listen to his words but also to observe his real actions. Obviously, Chen has won some initial breathing space, and is less likely, at least for now, to face strong military pressure from the mainland. But a long-term solution still needs to be found. Both sides need to be more creative and imaginative in terms of defining the political semantics of a `one China', since the fundamental, long-term interests of both Taiwan and the mainland lie in peaceful co-existence within a stable relationship. A stable and mutually beneficial cross-Strait relationship has to be developed on the basis of goodwill and positive interaction between the two sides. Each side also needs to take the fundamental interests of the other into consideration, as well as the various political constraints within which the other has to work in terms of dealing with cross-Strait relations, such as the mainstream Taiwanese view on the island's de facto independence status, and mainland sensitivities regarding sovereignty and national unity.

As Chen mentioned in his election campaign, it was President Richard Nixon, the arch-enemy of communism, who initiated the thaw with Beijing in the early 1970s. As a pro-independence politician, therefore, Chen might be in a position to break the impasse and achieve a permanent peace with the mainland. His impeccable pro-independence record might be to his advantage; he may have the flexibility to formulate a compromise with Beijing without fear of losing the trust and support of many native Taiwanese. If that should happen, it will be hugely beneficial not only to the Chinese living on both sides of the Taiwan Strait but also to the entire Asia-Pacific region.

Taiwan's recent presidential election represents a significant milestone in the island's political development. The defeat of Lien Chan, the candidate of the ruling KMT party, and the triumph of Chen Shui-bien, the opposition DPP candidate, symbolises the end of an era. The election result will substantially change the political landscape of Taiwan by breaking the old power configuration. The result will also impact greatly on cross-Strait relations, which has deep implications for the peace and security of the entire Asia-Pacific region.

Dr Lin Min (Chairperson) and Dr Maria Galikowski (Senior Lecturer) are members of the University of Waikato's Department of East Asian Studies.
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Author:Min, Lin; Galikowski, Maria
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Geographic Code:9TAIW
Date:May 1, 2000
Words:4489
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