Chen’s victory

Mainichi Shimbun, 19 March 2000

The candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Chen Shui-bian, has been elected president of Taiwan. Since China had repeatedly threatened military action to prevent the Taiwanese from voting for pro-independence Chen, international attention had focused on the question of reunification during the recent election campaign. But this was not the most pressing issue for the residents of Taiwan.

Taiwanese voters were disgusted with the Nationalist Party’s use of connections to gangsters and money politics to cling to power and decided to hand the reins of government to Chen, a former mayor of Taipei who pledged to implement political reforms if elected president.

Taiwan began its democratization with the lifting of martial law and the end of Chiang Kai-shek’s one-party dictatorship and made considerable strides toward democracy under President Lee Teng-hui.

But Lien Chan, the Nationalist Party candidate whom President Lee had tapped as his successor, failed to excite voters.

Chen’s victory means that there will be a peaceful transfer of power from the Nationalist Party to the Democratic Progressive Party, which will mark a new stage in Taiwan’s democratization.

Democratization should not be equated with political stability, however. Chen’s political base is quite weak, and his Democratic Progressive Party is only the second-largest party in Taiwan’s parliament. When Chen assumes power in May, he will have to form a Cabinet and appoint a prime minister, but few members of the Democratic Progressive Party have experience in governing, so he may have to reach out to independents and the Nationalist Party for cooperation.

Since confusion is likely to prevail within the Nationalist Party, which will find itself in opposition for the first time, Taiwan should expect political chaos for the immediate future.

Chen’s victory means that Japan-Taiwan relations will have to be put on a new footing. Chen is from a younger generation than Lee, who studied the Japanese language.

And the possibility of political instability raises concerns about Taiwan’s relations with China. Since Chen is a leader of the Taiwan independence movement, we can understand why China would be wary of him. But he has pledged not to make declarations of independence during his tenure as president and has also expressed his desire to start up a dialogue with China.

No matter how much Beijing despises Chen, he is the man that Taiwanese voters have elected as their new leader. Instead of branding him as a dyed-in-the-wool advocate of independence, shouldn’t Chinese leaders seek to establish a dialogue and build up mutual trust?

China will have to make an effort to come to terms with the self-confidence that democracy has inspired in the Taiwanese. During the previous election, China threatened Taiwan by staging missile exercises. The recent verbal threats simply encouraged more voters to cast their ballots for Chen.

Hong Kong and Macau were former colonies. When China negotiated with Britain and Portugal for their return, it did not have to concern itself with the popular will of the residents of these territories. But China will have to reach an accommodation with the popular will of Taiwan.