TAIPEI, TAIWAN–Taiwan’s vibrant young democracy seems somber and somewhat deflated today. A large portion of Taiwan’s voters clearly doubt the legitimacy of the reelection victory this weekend of President Chen Shui-bian. Thousands of the most vocal doubters, supporters of the losing opposition party, the Kuomintang, have been constantly on the streets of this capital city and other cities protesting the election results since they were announced Saturday evening.
A bitterly divided electorate is not the only factor that could prevent Chen from leading Taiwan effectively for the next four years. Chen’s domestic problems are matched by the deepening distrust of Chen harbored by both the dictatorial leaders of China, Taiwan’s arch-foe, and the Bush administration in the United States, Taiwan’s best friend and only de facto military ally.
Chen finds himself weakened both domestically and internationally despite winning considerably more votes than he did in 2000 when he was first elected president. But even high-level Chen supporters acknowledge that their man’s victory was a fluke. They concede that polls conducted by Chen’s own Democratic Progressive party, as well as the most reliable independent polls, showed that, by Friday morning, Chen was headed for a decisive defeat at the hands of Taiwan’s voters.
That all changed Friday afternoon when Chen was slightly wounded in a bizarre shooting during the last hours of the bitterly fought campaign. Instead of handing Chen a defeat by an expected margin of at least 5-6 percent, shocked and sympathetic voters gave him a razor-thin victory margin of two-tenths of one percent. While some switched their vote, many others who would have voted for the opposition KMT’s presidential candidate evidently stayed home.
But now Chen’s opponents as well as ordinary Taiwanese are expressing deep suspicions about Friday’s shooting incident. Conspiracy theories abound. In addition to several unexplained inconsistencies in the events surrounding the shooting, neither a gun nor a gunman was found even though a short-range handgun was evidently used.
For several hours beginning Saturday evening and continuing until daybreak Sunday, the future of Taiwanese democracy itself seemed in doubt. A violent political impasse loomed after Chen’s defeated opponent, Lien Chan, bitterly demanded that the election be declared null and void because of irregularities and of uncertainty surrounding Friday’s shooting. By Sunday afternoon, cooler heads in the KMT leadership were pulling back from Lien’s rash brinksmanship and insisting only on a complete recount. Privately, in fact, KMT moderates said they expected a recount as well as any judicial intervention would confirm Chen’s victory. They said they would accept such an outcome as legal and definitive even though they emphasized their view that Chen’s entire campaign and the final results were grossly unfair.
(Sunday night, Lien was still refusing to accept the election result, which will force the proud but colorless politician to end his long career and make way for younger, Taiwanese-born leaders who are not committed to the principle of eventual unification with China. Lien’s brinksmanship, undermining Taiwan’s fledgling democracy, marked an unseemly end to a long public career. But one can understand his fury over being denied the final prize because of an unexplained shooting. What’s more, the incident had prompted an island-wide security alert that prevented 200,000 just-mobilized members of the KMT-leaning security forces from voting. In addition, a record-high 330,000 spoiled ballots dwarfed Chen’s 29,000-vote victory margin.)
A prominent member of Taiwan’s legislature who belongs to Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party, said most ballot-spoilers would otherwise have voted for the KMT’s Lien. The legislator, Shen Fu-hsiung, citing his party’s own internal polls, estimated that Friday’s shooting swung a half million votes to Chen.
But even assuming Chen’s victory is reconfirmed, the president’s ability to govern effectively during the next four years is in serious doubt for reasons that go well beyond his benefiting from the shadowy shooting incident on Friday. Despite his victory, Chen emerges from the election without a credible mandate. That’s because a decisive majority of voters simultaneously refused to support two referenda that Chen had described as equally important as his being reelected. Although the two referenda asked voters to approve popular, existing policies, their real purpose was to form the foundation for Chen’s plans for the next four years to increase Taiwan’s separate and distinctive identity. Largely because Beijing fiercely opposed both the referenda and Chen’s plans, the voters held back, reluctant to support a course that threatened greater friction with China.
Chen won not because of his confrontationist stance vis-à-vis China but in spite of it. Chen won because his fellow Taiwanese view him as, for better or worse, the embodiment of the separate Taiwan identity that has inexorably and irrevocably taken hold of the population of this democratic island republic. At the same time, however, many of Chen’s supporters, and nearly all supporters of the opposition KMT, deeply fear a confrontation with China. All public-opinion polls in recent years show that more than 85 percent of people on Taiwan favor the peaceful status quo–meaning an effectively independent Taiwan that nevertheless has close and profitable economic relations with China.
The opposition KMT almost defeated Chen by espousing a conciliatory approach to China while assuring voters that they viewed unification with China as, at most, a long-term ideal that would become an option only after China shed its Communist-party dictatorship and democratized. The KMT’s conciliatory approach to China appeals to many younger Taiwanese who favor de facto independence but are primarily focused on their personal economic futures, which they see linked to ever stronger economic ties with mainland China. Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese now temporarily live and work on the Chinese mainland but few of them espouse making Taiwan part of China.
If Chen insists on pursuing his political program despite lacking a mandate to do so, he will quickly find himself in deep trouble. He will not only polarize Taiwanese voters but also further antagonize both China and the United States.
China’s leaders make little secret of their ultimate goal of subjugating Taiwan and crushing its democracy. But their minimum, short-term goal is to ensure that Taiwan doesn’t change its name from the symbolically important Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan or otherwise become an irrevocably separate country. This is precisely what the Beijing leadership believes is President Chen’s goal.
As for the United States, Bush-administration officials have viewed Chen with increasing distrust in recent years. The Bush administration strengthened the U.S. military commitment to Taiwan in early 2001 but after 9/11 it repeatedly, and with growing intensity, pleaded with Chen to try to avoid antagonizing China with pro-independence rhetoric. When Chen spurned their pleas, culminating in his placing the two referenda on Saturday’s ballot, Bush-administration officials felt their friendship was being abused. Many now view Chen as reckless and a threat to the vital U.S. interest in at least temporarily improving ties with China while it wrestles with the war on terrorism and the ongoing North Korean nuclear crisis.
The U.S. challenge now will be to convince Chen to exercise restraint and take a conciliatory stance towards China. At the same time, Washington must keep Beijing at arm’s length as it inevitably renews its attempts to push the United States into joining forces to undermine not only President Chen but also Taiwan’s existing de facto independence.
–Ross H. Munro is director of Asian studies at the Center for Security Studies in Washington, D.C. and is co-author of The Coming Conflict with China. He also teaches Chinese Grand Strategy at the Institute of World Politics. Munro has spent the past week in Taiwan as an invited election observer.