- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

Mark J. Valencia, a senior research fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, was part of a 15-member U.S. delegation invited to observe Taiwan’s March 20 presidential election and national referendum. Here is his postelection account:

TAIPEI, Taiwan — President Chen Shui-bian’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) defeated the coalition of Lien Chan’s Kuomingtang and James Soong’s People First Party (PFP) by a mere 0.22 percent — fewer than 30,000 votes of more than 13 million cast.

The election was supposed to showcase to the world the strength and vibrancy of Taiwan’s fledgling democracy, but the outcome was different: a mysterious assassination attempt, a tossup victory, accusations of an invalid election and mass protests. These are not good signs for this fragile democracy.

As I write, riot police are in the streets and demonstrators protest what they see as a stolen election throughout the island. Last night as I approached Kuomingtang headquarters, supporters of Mr. Lien shuffled along the barricaded street, tears streaming down their faces.

One woman carrying a Republic of China flag screamed at me, “This is not right. This is one country, one China.”

Republic of China, ROC for short, is what the nationalists called their government before and after they were evicted from the mainland to Taiwan in 1949. Kuomintang, KMT for short, means National People’s Party.

I arrived just in time to hear Mr. Lien announce that he would ask for a recount because of the more than 330,000 ballots declared invalid. He also said that he would file a lawsuit to declare the election invalid because of the mysterious assassination attempt that probably generated sympathy votes for the DPP.

Mr. Soong, Mr. Lien’s running mate, said: “What is at stake here is Taiwan’s democracy. It is our most effective weapon against China, and what kind of self-defense will we have if we destroy the weapon ourselves?” His supporters cheered, waved small ROC flags, and blasted their air horns as Mr. Lien appealed for calm.

A few miles away, at DPP headquarters, a crowd of about 100,000 celebrated their victory with fireworks, green DPP flags and the ubiquitous air horns.

Mr. Chen and others declared the results a victory for Taiwan’s democracy and its people.

The election campaign was bitter and personal. Some DPP leaders once had been harassed or jailed by the KMT, whose current leaders bear some responsibility for its authoritarian legacy.

The DPP’s central theme was an appeal to build a “Taiwanese identity” and deepen its new democracy. The KMT supported the status quo to avoid raising tensions with China. In fact, the DPP favors a trend toward “permanent separateness,” which is anathema to China, while the KMT backs “one China” while disagreeing with Beijing on the meaning of that term.

The DPP also had put a referendum on the ballot. It asked whether the voter thought Taiwan “should acquire more advanced antimissile systems” and whether Taiwan should “engage in negotiations with communist China, for the welfare of the people.”

The KMT opposed the referendum as a divisive, meaningless election ploy that unnecessarily antagonized both China and the United States, and urged a boycott of that question.

That the referendum failed to reach the threshold of 50 percent can be interpreted as meaning most voters did not buy into the DPP’s appeal to “Taiwanese identity.” If it had passed, the DPP would have expected the United States to help start cross-strait talks.

In the words of Peng Ming-Min, senior adviser to Mr. Chen, this was a huge setback for the DPP. Mr. Chen vowed to proceed with weapons purchases and cross-strait dialogue, regardless of the referendum result.

The United States and China had said that the referendum and subsequent constitutional changes would be a half-step toward the island’s independence, and could lead to conflict with China. But Mr. Peng and the DPP argued that China already had changed the status quo by aiming nearly 500 missiles at Taiwan.

That the DPP’s appeal for Taiwanese to “stand up” to China failed to pass suggests most voters preferred the KMT’s more conciliatory approach.

The Bush administration, despite its praise of democracy, is probably not pleased at the outcome of the March 20 election. One reason is that many DPP supporters and perhaps its leaders believe, unrealistically, that the United States will come to Taiwan’s aid if it is attacked.

This may be so if an attack on Taiwan is unprovoked, but much less likely if Taiwan acts provocatively, especially while the United States is overextended elsewhere. Indeed, Washington quietly has warned DPP leaders that democracy is not a pass to abuse or ignore U.S. strategic interests.

But some DPP officials feel that for the United States to even question Mr. Chen’s intentions is “imperialism.” They profess to feel abandoned and betrayed.

Beijing views Mr. Chen as a traitor. It maintained a stony silence on the election outcome and blacked out CNN broadcasts of Mr. Chen’s victory speech.

The United States and China are probably more satisfied with the referendum’s failure.

China opposed it from the beginning, seeing it as a precedent for a vote on independence — apparently Mr. Chen’s original intention.

However, President Bush publicly scolded Mr. Chen and the Bush administration encouraged him to change the wording of the ballot questions. Thus, some DPP supporters blame Mr. Bush for the failure of the referendum.

But more likely explanations are the KMT’s call for a boycott and the confusing nature of the ballot questions.

The KMT is less emotional than the DPP about relations with China. It is more willing to exploit Taiwan’s geographic position to become an economic bridge between East and West. During the election campaign, the KMT argued that it is the solid middle ground between two all-or-nothing extremes: Beijing’s one China versus the DPP’s independent Taiwan.

Mr. Chen now faces the task of uniting the people of Taiwan, including the nearly 6.5 million people who voted for the KMT and think the election was stolen. He also must try to repair relations with China and the United States.

Washington apparently hopes that the close election outcome and the failure of the referendum will act as brakes on any moves toward Taiwan’s independence. Mr. Bush did not comment for nearly a week on the outcome of the election. His hesitation supported the opposition’s claim that the election was flawed.

This week, tension mounted as the number of demonstrators in front of the Presidential Palace increased daily. So did calls for Mr. Chen to deal firmly with them. China hinted that if the turmoil continued, it might have to intervene to maintain order.

On March 26, demonstrators stormed the Central Election Commission to try to prevent it from declaring that Mr. Chen had won, but later in the day, the commission certified the final vote as “official.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Bush offered his congratulations but noted the “pending legal challenges.” Mr. Chen has agreed to a recount, but the details are still under negotiation, and Mr. Lien, the KMT candidate, has filed a court challenge of the election outcome citing “poll irregularities.”

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