Taiwan: Bitter struggle after election

Cries of "stolen election", 337,000 spoiled ballots, a double assassination attempt and riots in the streets… Taiwan’s presidential election had it all!

The tense atmosphere after Saturday’s poll (20 March) reflects a vicious power struggle between the "pan-greens" of President Chen Shui-bien’s independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and the "pan-blues", the former ruling Koumintang (KMT) and its smaller ally the People First Party (PFP).

Taiwan’s 23 million inhabitants can now expect a prolonged legal wrangle following Chen’s victory by the wafer thin margin of 50.1%. KMT supporters, mostly older people, gathered in angry demonstrations across the country to demand a recount or even new elections.

Military rule

Today’s KMT are the heirs of General Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalist army which lost power in China to Mao Zedong in 1949. KMT troops fled to Taiwan to establish a "government in exile" imposing a military dictatorship on the island. During the 1980s the KMT regime was forced to implement democratic reforms, but to this day retains control over the state apparatus, in other words, the police, army and law courts. In the run up to the last presidential election in 2000 the KMT split when James Soong, now leader of the PFP, stood as a third "anti-corruption" candidate against the "official" KMT candidate Lien Chan.

The opposition DPP, with Chen as its candidate, was able to "steal" victory with 39% of the popular vote in 2000. This time around, Lien and Soong patched up their differences standing on the same ticket as presidential and vice presidential candidates respectively, making the KMT fairly confident of regaining power.

But the situation changed dramatically when, the day before polling, Chen and his vice president Anette Lu were shot at during an election tour of the southern town of Tainan. Neither Chen nor Lu was seriously injured, which in turn led to conspiracy theories that the shooting was staged by the DPP itself. A DPP official admitted that the party gained "a half million votes" as a result of the shooting. When Chen’s narrow victory was announced the KMT immediately cried "fraud", demanding a recount and an international investigation into the Tainan shooting.

Referendum boycott

A key question in the post-election dispute is the high number of invalid ballots – 337,000 – 11 times greater than Chen’s margin of victory. With the election being between two capitalist candidates, some younger voters may have responded to an appeal from a coalition of radical groups to register a spoilt ballot in protest at the lack of action by either against poverty.

But a more important reason was probably the KMT’s call for a boycott of the referendum which took place on the same day. This referendum, on the issue of talks with China, was the first ever in Taiwan. Chen undoubtedly sought to use it for electoral purposes: to ensure China featured in the campaign.

The KMT waged a determined campaign for a boycott and forced the central election commission (CEC) to retreat on several important aspects of election procedure. Under KMT pressure the CEC decided among other things that voters would have to join a separate queue to vote in the referendum; that voting papers ending up in the "wrong" ballot box (i.e. referendum papers in an election ballot box) would be "invalid"; and that local election officials could wear "boycott" stickers or badges(!) despite a ban on political propaganda inside these stations. Most of these local officials are KMT sympathisers and Taiwanese politics has a tradition of patronage whereby, for example, employers tell their employees how to vote. In this way, KMT pressure succeeded in emasculating the "secret" ballot. By standing in the queue for referendum ballot papers a voter was declaring support for the DPP and against the KMT. This explains why less than 50% took part in the referendum, which thereby became void, despite a total turnout of 80%. Those who took part were predominantly DPP supporters and voted for Chen’s position.

Ethnic divisions

The struggle between "pan-greens" and "pan-blues" centres partly on attitudes to China. The DPP put great emphasis on the issue of independence in the campaign with the slogan "Yes to Taiwan". It’s unclear, however, how much this benefited the party especially when, for once, China’s government kept a low profile throughout the election campaign.

Most Taiwanese are opposed to incorporation into China but don’t see the advantages of a formal declaration of independence which would, to put it mildly, anger Beijing which regards Taiwan as a renegade province. The KMT’s more conciliatory line reflects the fear within the capitalist class of missing out on China’s huge market. Taiwanese capitalists have invested $100 billion in the Chinese economy. The island’s tech-dominated economy – it produces 60% of the world’s portable computers and LCD screens – experienced a severe downturn in 2001-02 and is today increasingly dependent on its giant neighbour. This explains why the Taipei stock market plummeted by 7% on the news of Chen’s re-election.

But the two rival blocks also reflect growing animosity between "mainlanders" who arrived with the KMT in the 1950s and the "native" Taiwanese, descendents of Chinese immigrants who moved to the island some centuries ago. Under the KMT dictatorship, "native" Taiwanese – who form the electoral base of the DPP – faced severe discrimination in respect of language, education and culture. A protracted political crisis in the aftermath of Saturday’s election therefore runs the multiple risks of inflaming ethnic tensions, panicking already nervous capitalists and, eventually, possibly even drawing in China.

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March 2004