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, while 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.
This is of course a very legitimate request from a country constantly under a barrage of threats and intimidation by China. However, somehow, Mr. Bush and quite a number of international observers put the blame on President Chen for "raising the tension in the Taiwan Strait." On the following pages we have a number of commentaries on this issue, as well as a brief analysis of the election campaign.
Those who put blame on President Chen for the present tension are barking up the wrong tree, and are siding with a repressive, Communist China at the expense of the newly-democratic Taiwan. A careful analysis shows that it is clearly China that is responsible for the increasing tension: During the past three years, president Chen has bent over backwards to be conciliatory and holding out one olive branch after another -- only to be rebuffed by China time and again.
In spite of repeated appeals by president Chen, China has continued to build up its arsenal of missiles aimed at Taiwan. According to the latest estimates, these now number around 500. A July 2003 Pentagon analysis of the military power of the PRC reported that the missile deployment was advancing at a much higher rate than originally estimated by the US.
In addition, in November 2003 there were the increasingly shrill statements by Chinese leaders up and down the ladder that they would use force against Taiwan if it proceeded with the proposed referendum law. Maj. Gen. Wang Zaixi, deputy director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, said in mid-November 2003 that "the use of force may become unavoidable."
It is still possible to resolve the matter peacefully, but China needs to realize that its threats and intimidation only have the opposite effect. And for international observers to put blame on President Chen for not buckling under China's threats is disingenuous, to say the least.
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.
The past few months also showed Messrs. Lien and Soong increasingly on the defensive: they didn't seem to be able to present their own policy, and time and again were seen to be reacting only to the new initiative of the president.
While they earlier had been vociferous opponents of a referendum of any sort, in mid-November 2003, they suddenly embraced the idea, and even suggested that a referendum should be held regarding the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant -- an issue that led to a major national crisis when President Chen suggested the same a couple of years ago.
At around the same time, the pan-blue camp made a U-turn on the issue of a new Constitution: until that time they were opposed to any change, but suddenly announced "ten principles on amending the Constitution." The process towards a new Constitution will thus be set in motion after the upcoming elections (see "Towards a new Constitution", on page 11).
Messrs. Lien and Soong have also had to put a stop to visits to Beijing by Kuomintang and PFP officials, eager to curry favors from Beijing. Such visits were highly common up until half a year ago, but the duo suddenly realized that this strengthened the perception that the KMT-PFP would sell Taiwan out to the Chinese Communists.
Another interesting turnaround was made in mid-December 2003, when Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng _ who serves as campaign leader for the pan-blue _ remarked that the KMT-PFP coalition did not rule out Taiwan independence as an option for Taiwan's future. That is quite a remarkable 180-degree turn for a Party that only 10 years ago imprisoned its opponents for advocating Taiwan independence.
Still the most vulnerable aspect for the duo has to do with money: Mr. Lien Chan was questioned time and again about the Kuomintang's huge wealth, obtained illegally during the many decades of single-party rule on the island _ from the late 1940s through the second half of the 1990s.
Mr. Soong has been even more tainted by reports of corruption. 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).
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