The Presidential elections on 20 March 2004 were Taiwan’s third direct presidential election. The first in 1996 saw Lee Teng-hui lead the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) to continued rule of the island, but a rule now based on the electoral will of the people. The second in 2000 produced the transfer of the Presidency from the KMT, which had ruled Taiwan since 1949, to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), an opposition party formed through a long period of resistance to KMT rule. While both the 1996 and 2000 elections were held under the specter of military threat from the People’s Republic of China, the losing side in Taiwan in both cases accepted the results. Since viable, stable democracy requires that the losers of an election accept that result as the outcome of a fair and just process, the 1996 and 2000 elections were major steps toward the institutionalization of democracy in Taiwan. The 2004 Presidential election was the first in which the losing side felt the electoral process was unfair, and thus challenged the legitimacy of the result. Successfully maneuvering the shoals of the March 2004 election will require considerable prudence by politicians on Taiwan and will test the maturity of the Taiwan democracy.
Opinion polls are forbidden in Taiwan ten days before a presidential election, but informal surveys by journalists in the several days before 20 March suggested that “pan blue” candidate Lian Chan had a slight lead over “pan-green” candidate Chen Sui-bian. (Blue is the color of the KMT and was the name given to an electoral coalition between the Kuomintang headed by Lian Chan and the People First Party headed by Song Chu-yu. Green, the color of the DPP, symbolizes a coalition between that party headed by Chen Sui-bian and a group headed by former President Lee Teng-hui after he split from the KMT in the run up to the 2000 election. ) Standing in the back of an open jeep during a campaign parade in southern Taiwan, Vice Presidential candidate Annette Lu was stuck in the knee by a bullet, while Chen Sui-bian was wounded when a second bullet grazed his stomach. Neither candidate realized immediately that they had been shot, or even shot at. Firecrackers were being discharged along the route of the parade, and both candidates, along with their bodyguards, mistook the report of the gun (or guns) firing the bullets as firecrackers. (Discharging long strings of firecrackers in celebration is a common practice in Taiwanese culture, common at weddings, shop-openings, and political events.) Once the shooting and wounding of both Chen and Lu was discovered, they were rushed to a hospital, though not to the nearest one. Shortly following the assassination attempt, Taiwan’s military and police were put on alert. This move prevented a number of soldiers and police from voting. Taiwan’s officer corps and professional soldiers tend to vote for the Nationalist, so the alert had the effect of favoring Chen. The shooting of Chen and Lu produced a groundswell of sympathy and support for the DPP candidates. This eruption of emotional support apparently played a critical role in producing the DPP’s thin margin of victory. Chen carried the election by a razor thin margin–less than 30,000 votes out of some 13 million votes cast. Further complicating the situation, nearly 300,000 votes–nearly ten times the margin of Chen’s victory–were deemed invalid by election authorities
Conspiracy theories about the shooting erupted immediately. KMT supporters, and some KMT leaders, suggested that the shooting was organized by Chen Sui-bian himself. Or perhaps that there had been no shooting at all and the entire episode had been staged. There were many wild variants about how Chen and/or his DPP supporters staged the event. Perhaps Chen had broken a bag of fake blood hidden under his shirt, while the carefully selected pro-DPP doctors at the hospital had faked medical procedures to report a gunshot wound. If there had been a shot fired, why had not the President’s body guards responded appropriately by shielding Chen? Why did Chen go to a hospital further away, rather than to the one nearest by? The release of medical records of Chen’s treatment, statements by the doctors that had treated Chen, and release of a videotape of proceedings in the hospital Emergency Room while Chen was being treated soon staunched speculation that Chen had not actually been wounded. The extreme improbability of successfully firing a merely grazing and wounding, rather than a potentially mortal, shot also led people to conclude that the shots were not fired on Chen’s own orders or by DPP agents. Conspiracy theories are famously difficult to conclusively disprove, however, and many disgruntled pan-Blue supporters remained convinced that the shooting episode had, some how, some way, been engineered by Chen to “steal the election.”
Regarding the large number of invalid votes, the head of Taiwan’s National Election Commission (the governmental agency charged with organizing and supervising elections), attributed this to two main factors. First, several months before the 20 March election, and in an effort to reduce the possibility of voting fraud, there had been a tightening of rules regarding determination of valid-invalid ballots. Whereas previously a voter could mark anywhere on a candidates column on the ballot, now voters were required to make their mark inside a box associated with their candidate — the purpose being to exclude random, unintended marks from being counted as votes for a candidate. Efforts were made to publicize these changes, according to the Election Commission head, but unfortunately many voters did not pay attention or did not understand. The second factor, was that during the campaign a group had urged voters to cast invalid ballots as a way of protesting what it felt was the preoccupation of both pan-blue and pan-green candidates with identity issues and cross-Strait relations rather than addressing the issue of domestic poverty.
Late on the evening of election day, Lian Chan charged wide-spread voting fraud–though he offered no concrete evidence substantiating those charges–and demanded a recount. A court issued an order immediately sealing all ballots and ballot boxes to guard them pending a future recount. A recount is provided for under Taiwan law if a plaintiff can provide evidence of voting fraud or irregularities. Judges to the relevant courts were mostly appointed by President Chen during his 2000-04 administration, and it is therefore possible that their decision will be deemed as partisan.
Protests by pan-blue supporters continued a week after the 20 March election. When the Election Commission met to authoritatively confirm the result of the election, as the Commission is required to do by Taiwan’s electoral law, the protests turned violent, with protesters throwing rocks at police and storming the building where the Commission was meeting. The Commission confirmed Chen’s victory in the 20 March polling. This opened the way to a lawsuit by the KMT asking the courts to invalidate the election. Were the courts to find widespread fraud, they could conceivably invalidate the 20 March election and require a new one. Taiwan’s law allows the courts 30 days to reach a final decision about a disputed election. The confusion, partisan rancor, and protests could continue throughout the 30 days that the courts have to decide. Because of the uncertainty, the Taipei stock market declined sharply in the days after the election.
If, as seems likely, Chen’s narrow victory is upheld by the courts, the narrowness of his victory could cause Chen to expand support by ruling as a moderate, national-unity candidate. There will be strong pressures pushing him in the opposite direction, however. Identity issues drove the fierce partisan competition leading up to the 20 March elections, and those issues will probably not dissipate. Pan-green defined themselves as ardent supporters of Taiwanese (i.e., non Chinese) identity. Taiwan should be Taiwan, they said, and take its place among the respected, ordinary nations of the world. Taiwan was not, and could never be, a “part of China”, pan-Green said. These passionate appeals resonated, especially with young people on Taiwan, and as the campaign progressed the KMT moved a considerable distance towards those sentiments out of sheer electoral necessity. During the course of the campaign the KMT stopped talking about eventual reunification of Taiwan with China and started talking more about protecting Taiwan’s position in the world. The KMT has not formally dropped its embrace as unification as the eventual goal, but it has learned that stressing that is not a good way to win elections.
It could be that Chen Sui-bian will conclude that he and the pan-Green coalition can continue to set the direction of Taiwan politics and press ahead with making Taiwan a ”normal country.” Chen has indicated that he intends to push ahead with constitutional reform over the next four years. Even setting aside issues such as the name of the country (which Chen promised at the time of his 2000 inauguration not to change unless Taiwan is attacked by the mainland), constitutional revision raises many issues, which Beijing could well deem “Taiwan independence.” Elimination of all putative “national” institutions left over from the pre-1949 period, or specification of the national territory as Taiwan, Pescadores, Quemoy, and Mazu, for example. Many people in Taiwan feel that Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games creates constraints on Beijing’s willingness to respond harshly to Taiwan, perhaps creating a window of opportunity to move forward with bold moves. Beijing is well aware of this sentiment, and will probably go out of its way to dispel it. Beijing will be sorely tempted to exploit the deep divisions in Taiwan’s politics that emerged from the 20 March election.
Taiwan has done little in response to repeated American urgings to improve its self-defense capabilities. Of the generous list of advanced military equipment approved by the Bush Administration for sale to Taiwan in 2001 (all of which Taiwan had long been requested to purchase) as of late 2003 Taipei had purchased nothing, according to the unofficial U.S. representative in Taiwan. Taiwan’s legislators and taxpayers find this sophisticated equipment too expensive, and other domestic demands on government spending more pressing. Taiwan’s defense budget continues to fall as a percent of government spending. During the March 2004 presidential campaign the two sides competed on who could most quickly and deeply reduce the military service obligation for Taiwan’s young men.
Pursuing a forceful, assertive foreign policy from a position of military weakness has often been a receipt for disaster. People on Taiwan are oblivious to this harsh fact. Dominant thinking in Taiwan seems to be that Taiwan, regardless of whatever it does in the area of military spending, is too small and weak to really fend off a Chinese attack, and that, anyway, the United States will protect Taiwan. This sort of approach could easily sour Chen’s relations with Washington. Efforts to enhance Taiwan’s military self-defense capability were not furthered by the 20 March election. One of two referendum regarding Taiwan’s relations with mainland China included on the 20 March ballot at Chen’s insistence, asked whether Taiwan should spend the money to purchase advanced anti-missile technology from the United States to counter the growing missile threat from China. The issue failed because less than half of all voters cast a ballot on the issue. Chen’s insistence on including the referendum on the 20 March ballot was seen by many in the Bush Administration — including President Bush himself — as an unnecessary provocative action. The new tensions in Taiwan-US relations could offer further incentive for Beijing to push Washington hard on the Taiwan issue.