[This article originally appeared on the cover of the March 31, 2000, issue of HUMAN EVENTS.]
TAIPEI–Many Taiwan political observers believed that intense demonstrations and perhaps even riots would break out if Chen Shui-bian, candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), lost the March 18 presidential election. His hard-line, pro-independence followers were thought to believe that only massive vote-buying by the incumbent Kuomintang (KMT) party, which had ruled the island since its Nationalist troops fled the Chinese mainland in 1949 before the victorious Communist forces, could explain a DPP defeat.
Indeed, public opinion polls had consistently shown the three major candidates separated only narrowly, with a large number of undecideds, and the final outcome expected to be close. Thus, the possibility of a “stolen” election seemed quite realistic to those skeptical that democracy had really taken root in Taiwan.
Instead, the KMT’s nominee, Lien Chan, received the lowest percentage of the vote (23.1%) of the three major candidates. The demonstrations and “rioting” that broke out (although very tame by American standards) were conducted by frustrated and confused KMT members, who could not accept that the party (with all of its accumulated privileges) was now on its way out of power after so many years.
An Obsolete Failure
This complete collapse of the descendant of Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalists surprised nearly everyone, including the senior leaders of Lien’s campaign. In a country that loves political conspiracy theories, many speculated that the KMT’s internal polls had been kept away from incumbent President Lee Teng-hui to shield him from the unpleasant reality that his chosen successor was headed for a massive defeat.
An even better conspiracy theory, widely voiced both by the winning DPP and disgruntled KMT members was that Lee actually wanted DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian to win. Under this logic, Lee was driven primarily by his personal animus against the third major candidate, independent James Soong, a former KMT rising star when he was governor of Taiwan province (the provincial government being almost entirely coextensive with the current geographic control of the Republic of China). Like Lee and Lien, Soong was educated in America (where he was a student at Georgetown University under Prof. Jeane Kirkpatrick), and had been extremely popular during his tenure.
To defeat Soong, under this theory, President Lee covertly favored Chen Shui-bian, whose policies on relations with the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) were much closer substantively to Lee’s than Soong’s, or even those of the KMT’s own Lien Chan. Beijing’s near-hysterical preelection rhetoric–directed implicitly against Chen–was consistent with this theory, even though most observers conclude that the PRC’s belligerency backfired, increasing Chen’s final total.
Many KMT loyalists had hoped that Lee would have chosen a Lien-Soong ticket, smoothing over the personal and policy differences, which could convincingly defeat the DPP, and keep the KMT in power. Instead, however, the Lee-Soong split led Soong to resign from the KMT and pursue an independent candidacy.
Soong’s popularity and his anti-KMT campaign led him to a close, second-place finish on March 18, with 36.8% of the vote, just over 300,000 votes behind Chen Shui-bian’s winning 39.3%.
The day after the election, President Lee said that he would step down early from his position as KMT chairman, along with the bulk of the party leadership, and Soong announced that his supporters were taking steps to form an entirely new party.
While still far too early to predict the future of Taiwanese politics, this election’s basic story is that democracy is firmly entrenched here. That explains the immediate rush of pro-Beijing analysts to say that the DPP no longer really favors independence from the PRC, and that it has “moderated” its views, and will not make “provocative” statements upsetting to Beijing’s leaders. This is a way both of ignoring the actual election results, and of simultaneously trying to apply “spin” to make it come out a different way.
Nowhere is this attitude more entrenched than in our own State Department, which may have been more surprised by the election than the Beijing leadership. But Washington now has its long-standing wish for Taiwan–free elections and an open political system–however inconvenient it may be for the Clinton Administration.
It is true that there is no pro-independence majority on Taiwan, and the combined votes for Lien and Soong showed that a united KMT quite likely would have again defeated the DPP, as it did in the 1996 presidential election.
Most Taiwan voters, according to polls and analysts across the political spectrum, accept the status quo, in which the island is functionally independent, and would choose reunification with the PRC only when the PRC started to look more like free-market, democratic Taiwan.
Moreover, dissatisfaction with KMT rule was obviously widespread, with allegations of “crony capitalism” and political corruption widely believed, even among loyal KMT members.
All that said, Chen Shui-bian and the DPP have consistently taken the strongest anti-PRC line of any major political force on Taiwan. To think that Chen’s supporters were unaware of the international implications of their vote, or that they were only voting on domestic political issues, is simply wishful thinking. The anti-KMT voters had two clear alternatives–Soong and president-elect Chen–and they went narrowly for Chen, knowing full well what his staunch DPP supporters really wanted.
Chen has astutely understood that he needs to form alliances with the supporters of other candidates, in effect to move to majority status, but that is simply good politics, not a fundamental repudiation of his or his party’s views.
How this plays out over the next four years is more a matter of tactics than philosophy.
The real point of the Taiwanese election for the United States is that House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.) spoke for a working majority here when he described the “one China” policy as an “obsolete failure.” Support for “one China” on Taiwan–at least as that term is understood in Beijing and the Clinton Administration–is basically nonexistent. This is the new reality Washington must face, and it is a reality far more consistent with fundamental American interests than anything we have heard from the White House in the last seven years.
All the more reason now for the Senate to move expeditiously to adopt the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, perhaps even taking advantage of the opportunity to strengthen the House-passed version. Decisive congressional action on this issue would underline American support of the new Taiwanese government so convincingly that even Beijing could not misunderstand.