ASIA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Taiwan's poll a rowdy, close run thing
, February 26, 2000
Taiwan's raucous democracy is full of vigor in the lead-up to the presidential election on March 18. Many of the recent developments have been startling, even by the free-for-all standards of the Republic of China on Taiwan.
James Soong, former Governor of Taiwan Province, broke from the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) to run his own independent presidential campaign. Following his expulsion from the KMT in November, along with various allies in the Legislature, Soong's campaign gained strength. Soong has been leading in the presidential election polls by a substantial margin, while the KMT's candidate, Vice President Lien Chan, languished around 10 to 15 percent in the polls - far and away the worst showing by the three major candidates. Lien Chan is commonly regarded as being a puppet of the current leader, President Lee Teng-hui, an impression the current campaign has done little to dispel.
His vice presidential running mate, Premier Vincent Siew, is widely regarded as a 'boneless tiger' - in other words, spineless.
The third major candidate is the Democratic Progressive Party's Chen Shui-bian. The DPP was formed to gain independence from China - in other words, found the Republic of Taiwan. Exactly what Chen would do if he won office is something of a mystery, as no one seems to be clear what he would do on this question, the most pressing issue on the agenda for Taiwan. The PRC have made it clear they would have no trouble accommodating James Soong or Lien Chan, but do not want Chen Shui-bian to be elected.
James Soong had been far ahead, but the revelation that someone, described as 'an elder', had deposited $7 million into his son's account greatly tarnished James Soong's image as a Mr Clean. In the days following the revelation, Soong came back to the pack, with the polls showing Lien Chan, Chen Shui-bian and James Soong running neck and neck. The reliability of the polls is somewhat suspect, as they tend to favour the party that commissions them, but in this case, all the polls agreed Soong has taken a big tumble.
Soong remained uncommunicative on the issue for several days, but at a late-night press conference, said that the money had come from KMT funds on the order of President Lee to support the wife and children of former President Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. The younger Chiang is known to have died leaving a very small inheritance. President Lee and the KMT blasted Soong's explanation as 'a pack of lies'.
Chen Shui-bian has been having a field day. Chen, former Mayor of Taipei, projects a 'little Taiwanese battler' image. He even has his own beanie, forerunner of the 'Ah Bian range', covering everything from oven mitts to a little statue of Chen in full cry.
Although he lost the Taipei mayoral election to the KMT candidate, he has always been more popular in the rural and regional areas than the capital. Chen is now busy trying to paint James Soong and the KMT as former cronies in a hotbed of corrupt 'money politics'.
In many ways, the presidential election is a contest between Žlites. The KMT is increasingly desperate in its bid to retain its 50-year-long grip on power. No one even pretends that Lien Chan is popular with the voters. The common view is that the KMT selected him as someone who wouldn't rock the boat and pay due respects to the party elders - in particular, President Lee. James Soong, a former head of the Government Information Office, was known as being tough on dissenters.
Among the lesser known candidates, the minor New Party's candidate Li Ao has been doing his best to destabilise the party, and no-one is quite sure if he is a few sandwiches short of a picnic or just simply a malicious wrecker. There has been shuffling backwards and forwards amid the Žlite to provide candidates, with little shortage of ambition and careerism.
For Chen's DPP, the Žlite is made up of former Taiwan independence advocates, who were frequently jailed under the rule of the KMT during the years of Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo. The 20th anniversary of the Kaohsiung Incident, which resulted in a show trial, was classed as a clear victory for their independence activists.
Chen Shui-bian, as principal legal defender of those arrested in the Kaohsiung Incident, has been playing the 'democratic reformer' card for all its worth and dismissed the current hubbub about disappearing money as characteristic of the KMT in government.
The election is wide open. In the month before the election, anything could happen.
It is looking more of an open race, and any of the three leading candidates could win.
If either James Soong or Chen Shui-bian is elected, the politics of Taiwan will get a severe shaking up. President Lee may not have the pleasant, well-paid retirement travelling the world to promote Taiwan he looked forward to if the KMT's Lien Chan falters in the straight. Strangely enough, although he has been trailing the other two main candidates for most of the campaign, he is still favoured to win - evidence that the KMT has retained its aura of invincibility, despite the long odds.