TAIWAN: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Opposition wins presidential election
, April 22, 2000
Taiwan set off into uncharted waters following the win in the recent presidential elections by Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Chen Shui-bian.
President-elect Chen is a long-time opposition activist and cut his teeth in the DPP by defending those on trial in the Formosa Incident in the early 80s, where Taiwan's first generation of democracy activists were jailed for their part in a riot in the southern port city of Kaohsiung.
The DPP has always maintained that the riot was caused by provocateurs acting on behalf of the Kuomintang (KMT).
For the KMT, which was in power for 54 years in Taiwan without interruption, the result was a disaster. KMT candidate, Vice-President Lien Chan, ran a very poor third behind James Soong, the popular former governor of Taiwan Province.
It is no secret that the KMT would have won easily if Soong had been their candidate, but current President Lee Teng-hui, mainly out of spite and bitterness, fired Soong from the KMT.
Lee, known outside Taiwan as "Mr Democracy" is a Japanese-educated former protégé of the late President Chiang Ching-kuo, who later said that making Lee his Vice-President was his worst mistake ever. Lee seems destined, like Gorbachev and De Klerk, to be more respected outside of his own country than within it. In Taiwan, he is likely to go down in history as the man who destroyed the KMT government out of personal spite.
The future of the KMT is up for grabs. The KMT is the world's richest political party, with assets in excess of $10 billion, according to some estimates. Chen is greedily eyeing this gold mine, which the opposition has always maintained was illegally gained through cozy deals between the government and the party.
The KMT has had an authoritarian structure and is periodically racked by purges, similar to the one that forced out James Soong. Instead of going down the democratic road of making the party more open and accountable, its presidential candidate, Lien Chan, has instead promised "more blood will flow."
James Soong has announced the formation of his own party and if he can continue to hold the imagination of the people and the party activists, the result could be that the KMT fades into oblivion.
President-elect Chen is by no means universally popular, winning just 39 percent of the vote, only narrowly beating James Soong. Many people, including the large and influential Hakka community, roundly detest him.
Popular revulsion against "black gold" politics - that is, the mix of gangster influence and money encouraged by Lee Teng-hui - at least in part carried Chen to victory.
However, the economy is healthy and the stock market is booming again and the small investors, almost everyone in Taiwan, seem to be willing to give Chen a chance, as do foreign investors. The real question is, just how patient is the Big Brother across the water - the communist People's Republic of China - likely to be with Chen?
Few sensible analysts believe that the communists will be satisfied with anything less than the acknowledgement of sovereignty of China over Taiwan, something the independence-minded DPP is unlikely to concede, whatever else happens to build links between the two sides.
As for Lee Teng-hui, his plan to exercise influence over the KMT for several years after his retirement as president and as chairman of the KMT seems to have been finished by a week of rioting by enraged KMT members, who besieged the KMT's palatial headquarters until Lee resigned.
Lee intended to spend his retirement travelling the world on behalf of Taiwan, but he is roundly detested by many, including the Americans, who have made no secret of the fact that they don't trust him for a variety of reasons and are probably quite happy to see the back of him.
As for President-elect Chen, he has achieved the highest post possible in Taiwan through nothing but sheer grit and hard work. Born semi-crippled into a landless family, he was so poor his family could not even afford paper so Chen could do his homework - he wrote on the wall instead.
Chen came first in everything from primary school on and became a wealthy expert on maritime law, before he began his involvement in opposition politics. He demonstrated, as Mayor of Taipei, Taiwan's capital and largest city, that he can get things done.
Whether Chen will be yet another strongman in the tradition of Taiwan's other strongmen, or a democrat, has yet to be seen.