The Election in Taiwan: A Forum
Richard Baum, Stanley Rosen, and James Tong dissect and analyze the presidential election of March 20
On March 23, Professors Richard Baum (Political Science, UCLA, and director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies), Stanley Rosen (Political Science, USC), and James Tong (Political Science, UCLA), dissected and analyzed the controversial Taiwanese presidential election of March 20.
The panelists described the campaign leading up to the election as energetic, emotional, and at times ugly. Most polls predicted that the challengers, Lien Chan (of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang), and his running mate James C.Y. Soong (of the People First Party), would defeat the incumbent Chen Shui-bian and his running mate, Hsiu-lien (Annette) Lu (both of the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP).
The day before the election, Chen and Lu, campaigning in the southern city of Tainan, were shot. The wounds were superficial, the balloting was held as scheduled, and the result was contrary to what most observers had predicted just two or three days earlier: a razor thin victory for the DPP. Chen Shui-bian had defeated Lien Chan by only around 30,000 votes out of roughly 13 million cast. Or, so it seemed. Lien Chan immediately demanded a recount, and Chen Shui-bian agreed. When and how the recount will be conducted is now at issue.
Professors Baum and Rosen were in Taiwan to observe the election. Traveling from north (the center of Kuomintang support) to south (the stronghold of the DPP), they interviewed individuals ranging from political workers and stalwarts in both of the parties, mayors and other government officials, and participants in political rallies and demonstrations, to the proverbial man in the street. They collected campaign literature, posters, and banners, and observed balloting. They returned to the U.S. the evening before the March 23 forum, ready to join their colleague James Tong in trying to cut through the controversy in order to understand what happened in the election, why it happened, what the consequences may be.
Professor Baum opened by presenting the essential background to the election. In June 1995, Lee Teng-hui (b. 1923), Taiwan's president, traveled to the United States to attend an alumni reunion at Cornell University (from which Lee had received the Ph.D. in 1968). This visit was in a purely private capacity. Nonetheless, the Beijing government was incensed. In March 1996, Baum continued, in the run-up to Taiwan’s first popular election for president, Beijing showed its pique by holding live-fire military exercises near Taiwan. Then, just a few days before the scheduled election, Beijing launched missiles that fell outside two busy ports of Taiwan, less than 50 nautical miles from the coast. This was clearly intended to communicate Beijing’s anger at Lee Teng-hui’s increasing support for an assertive policy of expanding Taiwan’s de facto independence. It was also presumably intended, Baum pointed out, to influence the election by frightening the voters of Taiwan into rejecting Lee. If this was Beijing's intent, then it must have been very disappointed: U.S. President Clinton dispatched an aircraft carrier group to the Taiwan Strait to signal continuing U.S. support for Taiwan and the voters of Taiwan elected Lee by a 54% majority.
In 2000, the election, Baum continued, was a three-way race between the Kuomintang, led by Lien Chan (b. 1936), a dour multi-millionaire who holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago; an independent who bolted from the Kuomintang, where he had been a long-time leading figure, James Soong (b. 1942), who holds a Ph.D. in political science from Georgetown; and the DPP, which had advocated independence for Taiwan, led by Chen Shui-bian (b. 1950), a former lawyer who had represented political dissidents.
Again, Beijing made its wishes known, hinting that if Chen were elected, war might result. Baum pointed out that again Beijing's threats seemed to have backfired: Chen Shui-bian won the election with 39.30% of the vote. Although Chen's election certainly cannot be attributed merely to a reaction against threats from across the strait, Baum concluded, pressure from Beijing undoubtedly worked to Chen's advantage.
For the 2004 election, Lien Chan and James Soong teamed up, with Lien as the candidate for president and Soong for vice president, to defeat Chen Shui-bian. Baum explained Chen also once again faced the vehement opposition of Beijing, which denounced what it saw as his efforts to permanently "split Taiwan from the motherland." Again, Beijing made various veiled threats of war if Chen succeeded in upsetting the status quo. Furthermore, earlier, in 2003, during the SARS crisis, Beijing initially opposed the sending of a World Health Organization (WHO) delegation to Taiwan. Baum observed that a great many Taiwanese saw this move as unreasonable and irresponsible.
Continuing his analysis of the background, Baum noted that of particular concern to Beijing was the plan of Chen Shui-bian to add a referendum to the 2004 presidential ballot and Chen's talk of constitutional reform. In the eyes of the leadership in Beijing, a referendum implies sovereignty and sovereignty implies independence. Baum pointed out that once again Beijing's pressure had the unintended consequence of bolstering support for Chen Shui-bian.
Then, on March 19, the day before the election, Chen Shui-bian and Annette Lu, while riding in a campaign cavalcade in the city of Tainan, were shot. Perhaps because the wounds were superficial, some diehard supporters of the Kuomintang immediately -- in the total absence of evidence, Baum added -- charged that the shooting was in fact staged in order to win support for Chen. In any case, the shooting surely won some sympathy votes for Chen.
James Tong described the 2004 election as being played out according to the numbers. The balloting, he suggested, could be described as 1-2-3: there was one election, involving two separate ballots, and three issues. At the polling places, voters were given a ballot with the presidential tickets, and -- if they wished -- they could pick up a second ballot, with the referendum. Thus, voters were presented with three issues: who to vote for as president, and -- if they decided to vote on the referendum -- how to vote on the two questions on the referendum.
The two questions on Taiwan’s first-ever national referendum were (the following is a translation of the actual referendum):
- The people of Taiwan demand that the Taiwan Strait issue be resolved through peaceful means. Should mainland China refuse to withdraw the missiles it has targeted at Taiwan and refuse to openly renounce the use of force against us, would you agree that the government should acquire more advanced anti-missile weapons to strengthen Taiwan's self-defense capabilities?
- Would you agree that our government should engage in negotiation with mainland China on the establishment of a peace and stability framework for cross-strait interactions in order to build consensus and for the welfare of the peoples on both sides?
Many surveys were taken all across Taiwan before March 10 (by law, no poll may be publicized ten days before the election). Tong stated that as one might expect, polls sponsored by the Kuomintang predicted a victory for the Kuomintang-People First Party coalition (which is described in Taiwan as the pan-blue group), while those sponsored by the DPP predicted a DPP (or pan-green) victory. Most independent polls foresaw a victorious Kuomintang, with a plurality of around 300,000 votes. The smart money (published bets), Tong explained, similarly was on a Kuomintang victory. As of March 1, the smart money was that Lien Chan would win by 300,000 votes. A few days before the election, the smart money was that his margin of victory would be around 850,000 votes.
The results of the election, Tong stated, were different from what most polls had predicted, to put it mildly. Chen Shui-bian won by 29,518 votes out of 13+ million cast, for a margin of victory of less than one-quarter of one percent. Voter turnout was 80.2 percent, lower than in the 2000 election (82 percent), and lower than polls had predicted (85 percent). However, the referendum pushed by Chen failed. To be more exact, it was rendered void by the fact than only around 45 percent of voters cast a referendum ballot. (Under Taiwan election law the referendum was rendered void if fewer than 50 percent of voters collected a referendum ballot paper. Picking up a ballot constituted taking part.) Of those who did cast a referendum ballot, around 90 percent voted "yes" to both questions. The Kuomintang had urged voters to boycott the referendum. Thus, Tong pointed out, although the Kuomintang failed to win the presidency, it succeeded in stifling an entirely symbolic referendum.
As had been expected, the Kuomintang-People First Party alliance generally carried the north, and the DDP the south.
What, Professor Tong asked, accounted for the unexpected results? How is it that the predicted voting pattern could change so much in less than two weeks? For the answer, Tong pointed to the extraordinary mobilization that took place shortly before the election. On February 28, the DPP organized what it called a Great Wall of Taiwanese democracy: A reported 1.2 million Taiwanese stood hand-in-hand, forming a human chain that extended the length of the island. The object of the demonstration was, according to its organizers, to show that all Taiwanese are united in their wish for peace. But more than that, the choice of February 28 was fraught with significance, Tong argued, for it marks the anniversary of an uprising in 1947, known as the 2-28 Incident, when all across Taiwan people rose up in protest against the corrupt and oppressive rule of the Kuomintang. The Kuomintang troops put down the demonstrations, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. For independence-minded and nationalistic Taiwanese, the 2-28 Incident is akin to Lexington and Concord for Americans.
Not to be outdone, on March 13, the pan-blue coalition organized simultaneous rallies in around 130 sites around the country, including parks, school playgrounds, city hall plazas, and temples. The event began at 2:00 pm and peaked at 3:20 p.m. when rally participants simultaneously shouted "Change the president, Save Taiwan." Reportedly, 3 million voices joined in. Someone described it as "the shout heard 'round the world."
Together, Tong mentioned, these two mammoth demonstrations thus involved nearly 4 million people. In a nation of roughly 22 million people, that means 1 in 6 Taiwanese were mobilized.
In the words of Professor Rosen, the outstanding fact demonstrated by the 2004 presidential election is the polarization of the electorate of Taiwan. Moreover, it is not just that the electorate is polarized. So too are "commentators and journalists and even academics." In Taiwan there is a "complete lack of political trust, from leaders to the man in the street."
Rosen explained that voters sympatric to the DDP have not forgotten the island's history of repression under the Kuomintang. After 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek and remnants of the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan from the mainland, they established a military dictatorship that "violently suppressed all manifestations of dissent" and made the 1.5 million mainlanders who accompanied Chiang into a privileged group.
The media in Taiwan, Rosen mentioned, continues to exacerbate the divisions in Taiwanese society. Newspapers and news magazines take a very open and partisan position that is reflected not only on their editorial pages, but also on their front pages. This is even true of the English-language newspapers of Taiwan: the Taipei Times and the Taiwan News both endorse the DPP, while the China Post supports the Kuomintang.
Rosen discussed how Lien Chan and Chen Shui-bian are exemplars of two opposing images of Taiwan. Lien, who was born on the mainland, is a scion of one of the richest families of Taiwan. After his return from the United States, with his Ph.D. in hand, he embarked on a distinguished political career that saw him hold a number of leading positions in the Kuomintang and in the government. As a government official, he was, beginning in 1975, ambassador to El Salvador, Minister of Communications and Transport, Vice Premier, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Governor of Taiwan Province, Premier, and Vice President (under Lee Teng-hui).
Chen Shui-bian, on the other hand, is (at least to many of his supporters) a Lincolnesque figure. He was born in a poor tenant farming family in the relative backwater of Kuantien Township in Tainan County. His family borrowed money to put him through school. He graduated at the top of his class from elementary school and high school, and then applied to study law at National Taiwan University, Taiwan’s preeminent university. He was ranked first among all applicants to the department of law. As a junior, he took the bar examination, which he not only passed, but passed with the highest grade. He became Taiwan’s youngest lawyer. After graduation, he practiced international law and maritime law, and then, in 1980, became part of a legal team defending activists accused of violating martial law. This was evidently a life transforming experience: Chen decided to devote himself to politics. In 1981 he was elected to a seat on Taipei’s city council. Thereafter, in 1989, he was elected to the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s parliament), and in 1994, he was elected mayor of Taipei.
With such stark differences in the candidates, the parties they represent, and the symbols that surround them, it is easy to see that elections in Taiwan, as Stanley Rosen put it, are "all about emotion." He showed a pan-blue election poster that compared Chen Shui-bian to Adolf Hitler. Other pan-blue campaign material declared that Chen is no better than Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden. Professor Rosen reported that when he challenged this sort of politicking, Kuomintang spokespeople replied that these were fair comparisons because Chen Shui-bian was sowing divisiveness and division among the people of Taiwan. At the same time, Rosen pointed out, pan-blue supporters claim their candidate was ahead in the polls because the pan-blue coalition concentrated on substantive issues. Indeed, it attempted to offer something to almost every conceivable constituency, Rosen stated. To teachers, it promised lower education fees; to the Hakka minority, it promised an affirmative action program; to fishermen and farmers, it promised subsidies. In unguarded moments, Rosen continued, Kuomintang supporters tend to portray themselves as "well educated and rational, while dismissing pan-green supporters as emotional, ignorant, working class."
When it comes to the politics of emotion, Rosen pointed out that the pan-greens rely "even more on appeals to the heart rather than the head." The referendum is certainly a case in point. While the pan-blues condemned Chen Shui-bian as a Hitler and a Bin Laden, the pan-greens laud him as comparable to John Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt.
Domestic Implications. Richard Baum pointed out that, in view of the number of votes cast for Chen Shui-bian, support for the DPP and its program has passed the 50 percent mark. This must be worrisome to Beijing, which "all along has claimed that the majority of the people in Taiwan oppose independence."
Some observers, Baum stated, believe that the narrowness of his victory will make Chen Shui-bian "beholden to the hot-heads in his party," who may be credited with pushing him to victory. If this is so, Baum argued that Chen may "move in a more radical direction," which could threaten the stability in the Taiwan Strait, and potentially bring the United States and China into confrontation. Indeed, Baum pointed out, Chen has promised constitutional reform for 2006, something that Beijing greatly fears, although the exact nature of the reform is not clear.
James Tong argued that the failure of the referendum calls into question whether there is real, widespread support for Taiwanese independence. Indeed, over the years, survey after survey has shown that by a wide margin the majority of Taiwanese favor maintaining the status quo.
For the Kuomintang, the future does not look good, Professor Baum concluded. For Lien Chan, who represents the old guard in the Kuomintang, the 2004 election was his last gasp. It is probable, Baum argued, that the People First Party will abandon the coalition. As for new leaders that may emerge, Baum particularly mentioned Ma Yingjeou (b. 1950), the dynamic mayor of Taipei. Ma, a member of the American-educated elite of Taiwan (he holds an S.J.D. from the Harvard Law School), and a member of the Kuomintang, played almost no visible role in the election, Baum pointed out. This help insolate him from the pan-blue defeat.
The big question for the Kuomintang, in Baum's view, is whether it can refashion itself, distance itself from its past, and become appealing to all segments of Taiwanese society. Baum stated that this question is becoming more and more problematic as increasing numbers of Taiwanese identify themselves as ethnically Taiwanese, not as Chinese. In 1998, a survey found that 45 percent of respondents self-identified as Chinese, 38 percent as “both Taiwanese and Chinese,” and 18 percent as Taiwanese. In 2003, respondents who self-identified as Chinese had fallen to less than 10 percent, while those who self-identified as “Taiwanese alone” had climbed to 41.5 percent, and those who self-identified as both Chinese and Taiwanese stood at 43.8 percent.
Implications for Beijing, Washington, and Beyond. Professor Baum observed that although the defeat of the referendum certainly has pleased Beijing, the reelection of Chen Shui-bian presents the PRC with a challenge. Chen and the DPP may decide to move ahead vigorously with plans to "perfect" Taiwan's de facto independence. If this comes to pass, then at some point Beijing may be faced with the unpleasant choice of "either acceding to Taiwan's independence or going to war." Alternatively, in Baum's view if Beijing alters its bedrock position vis-a-vis Taiwan -- "one China, two systems" -- then other possibilities may begin to emerge. In fact, Baum pointed out that in the presidential campaign, Lien Chan had promised to go to Beijing, and had suggested he would argue for "one China, many interpretations."
Stanley Rosen presented the results of a recent survey of 4,000 respondents, aged 16 and over, in various parts of China, on attitudes toward Taiwan: 2.3 percent had no objection to Taiwanese independence; 58.5 percent felt the PRC should continue its present policy and expand economic ties with Taiwan; 14.7 percent felt the PRC should use military force now to take over Taiwan; 13.2 percent favored the use of military force "later"; and 11.3 percent expressed no opinion.
In Richard Baum's view, the United States will continue to play a key role in the future of Taiwan. In this election, the United States successfully applied pressure on Chen Shui-bian to water down the wording of the referendum. President Bush, after meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in December 2003, declared that the United States is opposed to any unilateral action to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. And Secretary of State Powell later stated that he "saw no reason" for Taiwan to hold a referendum.
The critical question for the future, Baum continued, is whether the United States will maintain an even-handed policy that seeks to restrain both the ultra-nationalists in the PRC and the ultra-nationalists in Taiwan.
In response to a question from the audience about whether the shooting of Chen Shui-bian and Annette Lu was a genuine assassination attempt or was staged, both professors Baum and Rosen expressed the view that the shooting was real. The TV cameras captured the shooting: they show the windshield of the vehicle in which Chen and Lu were riding penetrated by a bullet, and they show Chen being struck.
A question from the audience was also raised by the accuracy and honesty of the balloting. Over 2.5 percent of all ballots -- an extremely high percentage -- were declared invalid. The panelists pointed out that the high rate was not comparable to the "hanging chads" phenomenon that caused turmoil in the U.S. presidential election of 2000. Professor Baum mentioned that in Taiwan there was an organized movement to deface ballots, and hence render them invalid, as a form of protest. The goal of the organizers was to garner 1 million protest votes of this sort. Furthermore, professors Rosen and Baum reported that voting appeared to be remarkably carefully scrutinized, and ballots were counted openly, with observers from all parties present. There has been no evidence of voting fraud.
In Richard Baum's view, all this makes the refusal of Lien Chan to accept the outcome of the election troubling. Baum stated that as soon as returns became available, and it was obvious that he had lost, Lien Chan claimed the election had been "unfair" and demanded a recount. According to Baum, a recount is unlikely to change the result inasmuch as the purposely defaced ballots will remain invalid and hence cannot be counted, and inasmuch as the procedures followed in counting the votes appear to have been above board.
Lien Chan's supporters nonetheless have continued to protest, and have occupied the square in front of the presidential office in Taipei.
The panelists pointed out that this unrest threatens collateral damage. In particular, democracy in Hong Kong is being called into question, Professor Baum pointed out. At issue in Hong Kong is whether the office of the Chief Executive should henceforth be subject to direct election. Those who are opposed to direct election (which would include the pro-Beijing faction) can point to Taiwan as an example of how voters can be irresponsible and how democracy in general leads to unrest and chaos. But, as Richard Baum concluded, if one wants democracy one must be ready to accept that democracy can be chaotic.
|1996 Election -- turnout = 76.04% of registered voters|
|Presidential candidate||Party||Votes cast||
% of votes
|Lin Yang-kang||New Party||
|2000 Election -- turnout = 82.7% of registered voters|
|Presidential candidate||Party||Votes cast||
% of votes
|Lee Ao||New Party||
|2004 Election -- turnout = 80.3% of registered voters|
|Presidential candidate||Party||Votes cast||
% of votes
Links to Views and Information on the 2004 Election
For voting returns by locality and other information, visit the Taiwan election page of the Asia Pacific Media Network.
- Taipei Times -- DPP affiliated
- Taiwan News -- DPP affiliated
- China Post -- Kuomintang affiliated
- Central News Agency -- China’s oldest wire independent service
- ETaiwan News – independent daily Taiwanese, world, and business news as well as editorials, forums, and weekly news analysis
- Central Daily News (Zhongyang ribao) -- Kuomintang-run newspaper
- Central News Agency (Zhongyang tongliu she) -- independent www.cna.com.tw
Major morning dailies:
- China Times (Jhongguo Shihbao)
- Liberty Times (Zihyou shihbao) -- pan-green
- United Daily News (Lianhe bao) -- pan-blue
Television networks (terrestrial)
- CTV (China Television Company)
- CTS (Chinese Television System)
- FTV (Formosa Television)
- PTS (Public Television Service)
- TTV (Taiwan Television)
Cable/Satellite TV networks
Government websites, in English
- 2004 Election website, run by the Government Information Office
- Central Election Commission
- Taiwan Headlines -- Official government website; offers a daily collection of
English-language news articles from many media sources in Taiwan
- Taipei Journal – Official government weekly news magazine
- Democratic Progressive Party -- Chinese / English
- People First Party
- New Party -- pro-unification with the PRC
Published: Friday, March 26, 2004