A Vote Beyond Its Borders

By John Pomfret, The Washington Post, Saturday 18 March 2000; A13

TAIPEI, Taiwan, March 17—When Taiwanese voters cast their ballots in Saturday’s presidential election, they will be taking a step fraught with risks—for China, for the United States, for neighboring Asian countries and for Taiwan itself.

The choice of a winner will have an enormous effect on security and prosperity in Asia. China’s reaction will be key, particularly if the candidate proclaiming Taiwanese sovereignty most loudly is elected. And how the United States plays into the new balance—pledged to defend Taiwan, but eager to deal with China—is critical as well.

The three-way race—among Vice President Lien Chan, maverick challenger James Soong and Chen Shui-bian, the independence champion and opposition leader—is neck and neck. But even before a winner is known, the election has brought into the spotlight an issue often overlooked in analyses of China’s relations with Taiwan: the potentially destabilizing role that democracy can play in the relationship between this little island of 23 million people and the one-party state of 1.3 billion across the Taiwan Strait.

Democracy, which got its start here in the 1980s, has played a key role in helping Taiwan’s people fashion a new identity, one that is increasingly distant from that of China. It also has ensured that significant compromise with Beijing is politically difficult if not impossible.

We’ve got an 800-pound gorilla next door, quipped Kuo Sheng-dao, a 58-year-old photographer from central Taiwan who says he will vote for Chen, the opposition leader. Everybody says, ‘Be careful.’ I say, ‘He’s just a gorilla.’

No matter who wins, change is in the air. Polls show that much more than half of Taiwan’s electorate supports either Chen or Soong, marking the first time the Nationalists—even if they stay in power—will have less than a majority of the vote. Polls also show that few young people back Lien, 63, a career government official widely regarded as aloof from people’s everyday concerns.

For the first time in 54 years, therefore, the Nationalist Party is in serious danger of losing power. Chen, 49, whose opposition party has favored declaring independence from China, is riding high in the polls. Soong, a former leader of the Nationalist Party who now has no party at all, is right behind him.

With Lien, the Nationalists have fielded an indecisive candidate in their bid to hold onto the presidential palace and replace President Lee Teng-hui. The KMT, as the party is also known, is so worried it will lose that Lien, in an interview, warned of domestic disturbances and foreign invasion if he is defeated by either of the two challengers.

He’s just not very exciting, said Chen Ji-gong, a 23-year-old college student slurping a bowl of noodles in the northern port city of Keelung. I want a leader, not a grandpa, running my country.

China, meanwhile, is so worried that Chen will become Taiwan’s next president that it is accommodating the Nationalists by threatening the very war feared by Lien. To prove that the warnings from Beijing are not just bluster, a state-run Chinese newspaper released a poll today showing that 95 percent of its respondents said they back taking Taiwan by force.

In the same vein, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji reminded the world on Wednesday that Beijing is willing to spill blood to unite with Taiwan, which the Chinese government has regarded as a renegade province since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists took refuge here following their loss to Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in 1949.

Aside from the reunification debate, many people on this island seem eager, one way or another, to begin dismantling the Nationalists’ 89-year-old political dynasty, which began back in China in 1911 with a revolution led by Sun Yat-sen against the Manchu Dynasty. There is general agreement here on the need to disassemble the party’s $7 billion business empire and cut its connections with gangsters and organized crime. And Taiwan’s main opposition group, Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party, born of the struggles against the Nationalists’ authoritarian rule in the 1960s and ’70s, is now viewed as a serious contender for power.

I am not for declaring independence, but I think it’s time for a change, said Irene Chen, a public relations executive at a major corporation in central Taiwan. The KMT should rest for a while. They are just too corrupt.

With their carnival atmosphere and mass rallies backed by Taiwanese rock stars, Buddhist monks and fireworks, Taiwan’s raucous electoral campaigns are unique in Asia. They are also extremely complex.

Lien, for example, should naturally expect to be supported by President Lee. But several of Lee’s closest advisers have backed Chen. Rumors were so rife that Lee also was secretly backing Chen that he had to deny them twice this week and reiterate his support for his vice president.

Reports are also widespread of vote buying by Nationalist operatives. But in at least some cases they are not buying votes for Lien; they are buying them for Soong. During his time as the governor of Taiwan and his years in the Nationalist Party hierarchy, the 58-year-old Georgetown University graduate made many close allies in the lower ranks of the Nationalist Party.

Many of us are still working for him, some secretly, some like me openly, said Lin Chian-nong, who is running Soong’s campaign in the small city of Fengyuan. I’m still a Nationalist Party member, but I’m working for the other side.

But corruption is the second most important issue to Taiwan’s voters. Relations with China tops the list.

Most reports make little distinction among the candidates’ respective China policies. All have moved to the center. And all say they will improve relations with China, which have been extremely tense since 1995, when the United States allowed Lee to attend a class reunion at Cornell University.

But Chen’s policy differs from that of the other two candidates. Both Soong and Lien now tacitly acknowledge the one China policy that previously formed the bedrock of security between the two sides.

That policy was negated by Lee last July when he issued a statement saying Taiwan and China should establish diplomatic relations, implying two countries.

Lien and Soong have since moved quietly to reconstruct the one China consensus that allowed for talks between Taiwan and China, effectively reversing Lee’s special state-to-state theory.

That leaves Chen, the opposition leader, as the only candidate upholding Lee’s policy of separate states. But Chen, in an interview, said his stand should not be feared because it would allow him to play a role like your Richard Nixon, who as president visited China and resumed U.S.-Chinese contacts after years of estrangement.

I can go to China and deal with the Chinese because everybody here knows I love Taiwan, I won’t sell out Taiwan, he said. Heh, if I win, I will invite President Jiang Zemin to Taipei.

But, some here point out, China appears in no mood to accept him.

I think Chen Shui-bian would like to do something bold, said Yin Cunyi, a researcher at the Institute of Taiwan Studies in Beijing, but he won’t succeed. He hasn’t accepted ’one China.’ And until he does, nothing will improve.

Taiwan Election

Taiwanese go to the polls today to elect a new president. The island nation’s relations with China, national defense policy and social welfare have been the most important issues during the race.

The three leading candidates of five in the close race are:

LIEN Chan, 63, vice president

Candidate of the Nationalist Party that has ruled Taiwan since Nationalist forces fled to the island in 1949. He is resented by some voters because of his privileged background and because his party is reputed to use its deep pockets and links to gangsters to win elections.

James SOONG, 58

Running as an independent. Rose to prominence in Taiwanese politics through the ranks of the Nationalist Party. Served 14 years as an aide to former president Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek, and earned the loathing of pro-democracy forces by ruthlessly suppressing unapproved publications. He now casts himself as a reformer. He held a commanding lead early in the race but has lost some support because of allegations of financial improprieties.

CHEN Shui-bian, 49

Candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party. Chen is seen by Beijing as the candidate most eager to preserve Taiwan’s de facto independence. He has backed away from his earlier calls for a referendum on independence, but his party still seeks to sever ties with China for good. Chen, son of a poor sugar plantation worker, won respect as a crime fighter and able administrator while mayor of Taipei from 1994 to 1998. He is especially popular among the ethnic Taiwanese, who occupied the island before the Nationalist invaded and claimed virtually all positions of political and economic power.

About the election:

The candidate with the most votes wins a four-year term.

Almost 15 million Taiwanese of a population of 23 million registered to vote.

Outgoing President Lee Teng-hui was elected in March 1996, winning 54 percent of the vote.

SOURCES: International Foundation for Electoral Systems, Knight Ridder, Associated Press