There are signs that Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian, under pressure from the Opposition, may relent and order a recount of the votes polled in the controversial election that he won in March.
THE fault lines in Taiwanese politics became exposed sharply in the aftermath of the presidential election held on March 19. The incumbent President, Chen Shui-bian, was controversially re-elected by the slimmest of margins - he won by 30,000 votes or 0.2 per cent of the votes cast. A day before the election, Chen and his running mate, Vice-President Annette Lu, escaped with superficial injuries, an "assassination attempt", which took place under circumstances that have yet to be explained fully. Opposition leaders allege that the highly publicised incident helped Chen garner enough sympathy votes to ensure his eventual victory. The Opposition, led by the nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT), also alleged that more than 1,00,000 of its supporters, mainly civil servants, were not allowed to cast their votes because of the state of emergency Chen declared after the shooting incident.
In the last presidential election, held four years ago, Chen won by polling just 39 per cent of the votes. The Opposition was divided at that time and the vote split three ways, helping Chen to squeak through. This time, according to official figures, he won slightly more than 50 per cent of the votes cast, defying the prediction of pollsters who had put the Opposition candidate ahead of him.
Chen is the first non-KMT candidate to be elected to the post of President. His election marked the beginning of Taiwan's experiment with a "divided" government, as the KMT continued to enjoy a majority in the National Assembly.
The period saw the failure of two government-sponsored referendums dealing with the contentious issue of bilateral relations with mainland China. The first asked the Taiwanese whether the country should further beef up its defences against China. The second asked the voters to endorse a government proposal to open talks with China on the issue of "peace and stability" across the Taiwan Straits. As for the latter, Beijing has refused to hold talks with Chen, accusing him of having a divisive agenda. The KMT had asked its supporters to boycott the referendums, which needed more than 50 per cent of the votes to be accepted. The referendum that called on the people to approve the strengthening of the missile defences against China, if passed, would have sparked off a new crisis with the mainland.
The referendums were thinly disguised ploys to advance Chen's stated goal of formalising Taiwanese independence. This is of course anathema to Beijing, which has said that it would use force to crush any formal bid by the Taiwanese government to secede. "The Taiwanese authorities have been trying to push for a referendum aimed at Taiwan's independence under the pretext of democracy. We firmly oppose any attempt by any people to split Taiwan from the rest of China by any means," Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told the media after the end of the National People's Congress' annual session in March. The idea of using referendums to advance the secessionist cause is not new to Taiwanese politics.
Since the results were declared, people have been demonstrating regularly in large numbers in front of the Presidential Palace in Taipei. On March 27, more than half a million Taiwanese demonstrated in the capital. It was one of the biggest demonstrations ever witnessed there. The demand of the Opposition is either to have a recount or to call a new election. Chen is trying to stall a recount citing constitutional constraints, though he may have to relent under growing domestic and international pressure. Even the United States, a staunch supporter of Taiwan, has been lukewarm in its endorsement of Chen's re-election. Until the end of March, Washington had not bothered to congratulate Chen on his victory.
In the last week of March, the Chinese government, speaking through the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing, said: "We will not sit by watching should the post-election situation in Taiwan get out of control, leading to social turmoil, endangering the lives and properties of our flesh and blood brothers and affecting stability across the Taiwan Straits." Before the election, President Chen had said that he would like the Taiwanese to vote on a new referendum, asking for a new Constitution for Taiwan. Beijing fears that the proposed referendum, to be held in 2006, will have a clause formally asserting Taiwanese independence. The present Constitution explicitly states that Taiwan is part of China. Chen's calculations are that if the proposed referendum is approved, China will not risk an armed conflict, as it will be preoccupied with the 2008 Olympics, which it is hosting. After Chen spoke publicly about the referendum idea, Beijing reacted strongly. The Taiwan Affairs Office issued a statement: "Chen Shui-bian advocates independence and seeks to use referendum to conduct separatist activities. No form of Taiwan separatist activity can be tolerated by the Chinese people."
Indications are that the KMT's presidential candidate, Lien Chan, and the leader of the smaller People First Party and the Opposition's vice-presidential candidate, James Soong, will resort to a Philippine-style "people's power" movement to force Chen to call new elections or order a recount. The Opposition feels that either way it stands to gain. Faced with massive protests, Chen has signalled his willingness for a recount but is playing for time. He wants an amendment to the Constitution passed in the legislature mandating a recount if the margin of victory in a presidential contest is less than 1 per cent. The Opposition is demanding a presidential decree for a recount so that the crisis can be resolved immediately.
The Opposition, however, is not united on the issue. Many influential figures in the KMT are for a fresh election. Some others on the other hand, seem to be opting for a compromise solution. They fear that the unrest will cause more damage to Taiwan's faltering economy. The KMT is also of the view that stirring up a confrontation with China is not good for the economy. Most of Taiwan's trade is with China. China is Taiwan's biggest and most important market. They feel that rocking the boat at this juncture will have undesirable consequences. Many Taiwanese fear that in the unlikely scenario of Taiwan seceding, development will suffer irrevocably.
Chen's Democratic People's Party (DPP) has its support base mainly in the southern part of the island. The DPP has been assiduously wooing the native Taiwanese vote; it has successfully harnessed their resentment against the people from the mainland who had ruled with an iron fist until the 1980s. Formosa, as Taiwan was called when it was under Dutch and Japanese colonial rule, was politically isolated from the mainland during the tumultuous political events leading to China's liberation. After their defeat at the hands of the communists, the KMT leadership, under Chiang Kai-shek, set up base in Formosa with the blessings of the Americans. The large influx of the mainlanders upset the ethnic and political balance in the island. Native Taiwanese are the descendants of those who had migrated to the island from the mainland many generations ago.
Under Chen's presidency, much importance was given to the main local language, "Minnanese", and Taiwanese history and culture in the school curriculum. Knowledge of the language is essential for passing competitive examinations for entry into the civil service. The aim is to build a distinct Taiwanese identity. Some hard-line supporters of Chen have suggested that the name of the country - "The Republic of China", be formally changed to the Republic of Taiwan.
Given the sharp polarisation in Taiwanese society as reflected by the election results, it will be difficult for Chen to fulfil his agenda for independence. Washington has strongly signalled its displeasure with Chen's pro-independence policies. Washington formally supports the "one-China" policy after establishing diplomatic relations with China in the 1970s. Beijing has urged Washington to "do more to contribute to peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits" in order to help maintain peace between China and Taiwan. President George W. Bush had told Wen Jiabao, in December last that Washington remained opposed to "any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo".