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Year 2004 Referendum and Presidential Elections

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Presidential elections are coming up again in Taiwan on 20 March 2004. This will be only the third time in history that such elections are held on the island: Until the mid-1980s, Taiwan suffered under the harsh one-party rule of the Kuomintang. In 1992, the people on the island voted for the first time for a fully democratically-elected parliament, the Legislative Yuan.

The first presidential elections were held only in 1996. In the second presidential elections, in March 2000, President Chen Shui-bian was elected as the first president from the Taiwanese democratic opposition of the DPP -- in spite of strong threats and intimidation by China.

Now he is up for reelection, and is running with vice-President Annette Lu against a combined ticket of the KMT's Lien Chan and the PFP's James Soong. In 2000, these two ran separately -- a split which helped make it possible for Chen Shui-bian to get elected.

The present election campaign is enlivened by a heated international debate about Taiwan's brand-new referendum law, passed by the Legislative Yuan on 27 November 2003, and signed into law by the President on 31 December. Article 17 of this law makes it possible for the president to call for a "defensive referendum", and Mr. Chen has indicated he intends to do so: on 20 March 2004 he will ask the people in Taiwan if they agree that China should dismantle its missiles aimed at Taiwan and that it publicly renounce the use of force against Taiwan.

Below, we take a closer look at each candidate.

Real-time election results on 20 March 2004

Chen Shui-bian: referendum and a promise of a new constitution

Chen Shui-bian

During the past few months, President Chen has been slowly but surely gaining in the opinion polls in Taiwan. Up until the summer of 2003, he was generally viewed as trailing considerably behind his "pan-blue" rivals, the combined ticket of the KMT's Lien Chan and the PFP's James Soong.

However since September and October 2003 a number of things happened: two huge "name change" rallies took place in Taiwan -- both led by former President Lee Teng-hui -- making the case for discarding the outdated "Republic of China" title, and for adoption of "Taiwan" as the formal name for the country. The scale of the rallies was unprecedented — some 150,000 people on September 6th 2003 in Taipei, and some 200,000 on October 25th in Kaohsiung -- and gave impetus to the idea that the people on the island were ready for such change.

It seems that the two events made the people on the island realize that the upcoming election is crucial for the island's future: increasingly they coalesced around the President, and moved away from the pan-blue Lien-Soong coalition, in spite of the strong hold the pan-blues still have over both the electronic and printed media.

Mr. Chen also became increasingly self-assured, speaking out about the need to complete the democratization process, and set up a mechanism to give the people on the island a voice in deciding important issues. The debate about a referendum law had been going on for some time: the DPP -- and particularly legislator Chai Trong-rong -- had been advocating such a law for almost a decade, but it wasn't until the Spring of 2003 that the Legislative Yuan started to discuss the passage of such a law in earnest.

For a long time the debate in the Legislative Yuan was bogged down, due to the fact that the pan-blue coalition still had a majority. However, by mid-November 2003, the movement towards more openness and democracy became unstoppable, and the pan-blue coalition decided that a referendum law was unavoidable. Mr. Chen profited from this momentum, and by the beginning of December 2003, most opinion polls on the island showed him in an even race with his opponents. By the end of December 2003, most polls showed him drawing ahead, by the latest polls some 36% for the Chen-Annette Lu ticket, versus some 34% for Lien-Soong.

Mr. Chen has also spoken out in favor of a New Constitution, to replace the present anachronistic "Republic of China" Constitution, adopted by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists in Nanking in China in December 1946.

Lien Chan, Kuomintang Presidential candidate

Lien Chan: making Al Gore look exciting

Lien Chan

Mr. Lien Chan was selected as the Kuomintang's presidential candidate in a KMT Party Congress in April 2003. He chose People's First Party leader James Soong as his running mate.

The problem with Mr. Lien Chan is that he is a dour politician. The standard joke in Taiwan is that Mr. Lien "makes US Presidential candidate Al Gore look exciting."

Another problem with Mr. Lien is that he is exceedingly wealthy. For many in Taiwan this raises the question how his wealth was obtained. While there are no direct indications that Mr. Lien's wealth was achieved in other than legitimate business practices, there is a long history of links between the KMT's wealth -- "gold" in Taiwan's terminology -- and the not insignificant underworld of gangs and triads -- "black" in Taiwan's political spectrum.

The DPP has long criticized the linkage between "black" and "gold." A number of well-known figures in the underworld were able to "buy themselves clean" by running for office and even being elected to positions such as the Legislative Yuan and County Magistrate. The Kuomintang has traditionally condoned such activities and has done very little to stem the influence of the underworld and money in politics.

James Soong, People's First Party, vice-presidential candidate

James Soong's financial scandals

James Soong

In the 2000 Presidential elections, Mr. Soong initially was the front runner, scoring significantly ahead of his two rivals in the opinion polls. He eventually ended up in second place, trailing behind the victorious President Chen.

Mr. Soong 's downfall was a corruption scandal, which continued to follow him during the past four years. Both the Chung Hsing Bills Finance embezzlement scandal and the Lafayette scandal reportedly involved hundreds of millions of US dollars, which disappeared. Soong is the major suspect, but because of his political position he has been able to avoid punishment (see James Soong: follow the money, in Taiwan Communiqué issue no. 105, p. 10-11).

However, in spite of all this, Mr. Lien Chan selected Mr. Soong as his vice-presidential running mate.