Taiwan Communiqué No. 71, June 1996

Democracy in Taiwan

A Taiwanese achievement

Taiwan's first-ever presidential elections, held on 23 March 1996, are the culmination of Taiwan's transition from the authoritarian one-party Kuomintang rule to a full fledged democracy.

The KMT's repressive rule started after World War II, when Chiang Kai-shek was losing his Civil War with the Communists in China, and moved his troops and government to Taiwan. The widespread violations of human rights, restrictions on political rights, and the tight control over all aspects of the society lasted through the late 1980s: it wasn't until 1987 that Martial Law was lifted, while several laws restricting freedom of speech, and freedom of political expression were not repealed until 1991-92.

The democratic opposition on the island gradually organized itself in the early 1980s, and consolidated with the formation of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in September 1986. At each step along the route, the democratic opposition had to push hard to gain increasing freedoms for the Taiwanese society, and at each step the repressive forces within the Kuomintang fought hard to maintain the authoritarian status quo.

The main driving force in the whole democratization process was the fact that the native Taiwanese (85 percent of the island's population) wanted to end the repressive rule of Chiang's heirs and the mainlander dominance over the political system. Taiwan's transition towards democracy is thus first and foremost the achievement of the Taiwanese democratic movement on the island, which cherishes its Taiwanese identity, and strives to strengthen its own distinct culture, language, social system, and newfound democratic system.

Taiwan Communiqué comment: It is thus peculiar to read press reports which call Mr. Lee Teng-hui the first democratically-elected leader in China's nearly 5,000 years' history. The democratization process didn't have anything to do with China or with the Chinese people, and actually took place in reaction against the lack of democracy and human rights displayed by the Chinese both Nationalists and Communists.

Rejection of China's threats and intimidations

The results of the Presidential elections show that the Taiwanese voters support a strong "Taiwan first" policy, and were not intimidated by China's bullying. Both President Lee and Professor Peng took a firm stand against China, and stated during the election campaign that they intended to further enhance Taiwan's international position by continuing to press for UN-membership and further diplomatic relations. Together these two won 75 percent of the vote.

Chinese on Tienanmen Square:
"Here comes Lee Teng-hui's counter-attack."

China's threats also sharply reduced support for pro-unification candidates Lin Yang-kang and Chen Li-an, who advocated an accommodation with China. As Taiwan is being transformed into a full-fledged democracy, it will become more difficult for such pro-unification advocates to succeed in electoral politics on the island. As the differences between a democratic Taiwan and a repressive China grow, the mainlanders who came to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek will increasingly have to identify with Taiwan, and the KMT will have to distance itself further and further away from traditional party orthodoxy of unification with China.

How did Lee Teng-hui win ?

President Lee Teng-hui won with a commanding 54 percent of the vote. Professor Peng Ming-min of the opposition DPP-party came in with 21.13 percent. The two other candidates in the four-way race, Messrs. Lin Yang-kang and Chen Li-an, trailed far behind with 14.9 and 9.98 percent respectively.

Dr. Peng received a much lower percentage of the vote than the roughly one-third share the party normally gets in elections, because many independence-supporters crossed over to vote for President Lee. Here are some explanations:

1. China's personal attacks against President Lee. The virulent attacks by China against Mr. Lee backfired, and actually encouraged the Taiwanese people to rally behind the President, who is a Taiwanese. During the campaign Mr. Lee generally spoke Taiwanese (instead of the Mandarin dialect brought over from China), and increasingly presented himself as a defender of Taiwan's interests, who has transformed the old mainlander-dominated Kuomintang into a "Taiwan First" party.

2. Less distinction between the Kuomintang and the DPP. On many issues, President Lee has drawn closer to positions traditionally taken by the DPP. He adopted many of the DPP's main political issues, such as striving for UN membership, and a higher international role for Taiwan. This further fueled public perception that Lee is finding his Taiwanese roots, and is strengthening Taiwan's international position while paying lipservice to eventual unification with China.

3. The DPP's "Grand Reconciliation" campaign alienated many grass-root supporters of the DPP. This campaign was initiated by the DPP leadership following the December 1995 Legislative Yuan elections, and entailed a tactical cooperation with the pro-unification New Party in an attempt to wrestle the majority in the Legislative Yuan away from the Kuomintang. It turns out to have been a strategic mistake.

4. Advantage of funds and incumbency by President Lee. Control of the administrative powers of government, the advantages of incumbency, and the KMT's large financial resources made it possible for the President to outspend the other candidates in advertising, control of access to television, and thus to overwhelm his competitors. The KMT blanketed Taipei and other cities with billboards, television commercials, and campaign paraphernalia, while the DPP's lack of funds made it impossible for Professor Peng to make up for the lack of name-recognition on the island.

National Assembly elections

The elections for the 334-member National Assembly a body which has "Amendment of the Constitution" as its only function was held concurrently. The results are shown in the table on page 7. For comparison, we also show the number of seats and percentage of the votes gained in the previous National Assembly elections in 1991.

This shows the significant loss suffered by the Kuomintang since that time, from more than 70 percent to less than 50 percent. A large portion of that is due to the establishment of the New Party in 1993 which drew away many of the mainlanders, the KMT's traditional power base.

1996 1996 1991 1991
Number of Seats Percent of Vote Number of Seats Percent of Vote
Kuomintang 183 49.68 % 254 71.2 %
DPP 99 29.85 % 66 23.9 %
Independent candidates 6 6.80 % 5 4.9 %
New Party 46 13.67 %
TOTAL 334 100 % 325 100 %

The table shows the headway made by the DPP, consolidating its position with approximately one third of the electorate as its power base. It also shows that the Kuomintang no longer has the majority to unilaterally amend the Constitution, which requires the approval of at least a three-quarter majority in the Assembly.

Mr. Lee Teng-hui's inauguration speech

On Monday, 20 May 1996, the newly-elected President Lee Teng-hui was inaugurated, and delivered his long-awaited inaugural speech. It became an exercise in double-talk: on the one hand Mr. Lee spoke about "...a fresh beginning for the future of the country", about "our common homeland" and (rightly so) did not refer to "One China" at all.

He also stated that he would continue Taiwan's quest to expand international relations, including membership in the United Nations. "We will continue to promote pragmatic diplomacy. By doing so, we will secure for our 21.3 million people enough room for existence and development, as well as the respect and treatment they deserve in the international arena."

On the other hand, he proclaimed that "... we in Taiwan have realized the Chinese dream", referred several times to Taiwan as part of China's 5,000 years' history, and suggested that Taiwan was "set to gradually exercise its leadership role in cultural development and take upon itself the responsibility for nurturing a new Chinese culture."

Mr. Lee received most press coverage for his statement that he was willing to travel to China to meet with Chinese leaders "for a direct exchange of views in order to open up a new era of communication and cooperation between the two sides and ensure peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region."

Taiwan Communiqué comment: While Mr. Lee's speech has some positive elements, he failed to clearly enunciate Taiwan's right to determine its own future as a free, democratic and independent nation. He continues to cling to the outdated "unification" policy of the Kuomintang, and even challenged the Chinese in leadership in the area of cultural development: if anything is provocative to the Chinese in Beijing, this is it !

If Mr. Lee really wants to conduct pragmatic diplomacy, he needs to sever the links with the Kuomintang's Chinese past, discard the old and confusing "Republic of China (ROC)" title -- jokingly referred to as "Republic of Confusion" by the Taiwanese -- and present Taiwan internationally simply and straightforwardly as "Taiwan." That is the only way the international community will accept Taiwan in its fold as a full and equal member.

"Taiwan is not part of China" demonstration

One day before Mr. Lee's inauguration, a large demonstration was held in Taipei to express support for formal independence of the island. Supporters of Taiwan independence took to the streets to let their voices be heard internationally. They emphasized that President Lee's anachronistic line of "eventual unification with China" does not have the full support of the people of Taiwan. As usual, the government-controlled media tried to downplay the event, and hardly gave it any coverage.

On 18 May 1996, Prof. Lin Shan-tien of National Taiwan University, the spokesman for the Association for Taiwan Nationbuilding (the main organizer of the event), issued a statement urging the new cabinet to take concrete measures to abolish the old and outdated "Republic of China" constitution (which dates back to 1947, when the Chinese Nationalists ruled China from Nanking) and to enact a new Taiwan Constitution. Professor Lin urged the new government to bring Taiwan back to the international community by joining the United Nations as "Taiwan".

The demonstration drew more than 10,000 participants, and included young and old, mothers with babies and teenagers. They marched from Ta-an park in the eastern part of Taipei around 5 p.m. and wound their way through the city. Many carried banners and placards saying that Taiwan is not part of China. They also strongly criticized President Lee for stating that "independence is unnecessary and impossible."

The demonstrators were joined by more than 100 vehicles, including taxis, cars and vans festooned with colorful pro-independence flags and banners. The convoy stretched for several kilometers through the capital city. After two hours they arrived at Taipei City Hall to hold a rally, including speeches by major political figures in the democratic opposition, and singing of Taiwanese folk songs.

More than 20 pro-independence groups and radio stations joined the Association for Nation-building in sponsoring the event. Prof. Peng Ming-min, the DPP's presidential candidate in the March 1996 elections, founded the Association for Taiwan Nation-building as a forum to continue advocacy of Taiwan independence.

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