Taiwan's Dire Straits

No Honeymoon for President Chen

President Chen's wounds are shown on Taiwanese TV
Taiwan TV shows Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's bullet wound and the bullet's path, March 19, 2004. Chen was shot the day before Taiwan's presidential elections (Photo: AFP/Getty Images).

The presidential election has finally come to an end. President Chen Shui-bian, who succeeded in his re-election bid, will be sworn in for his second term in two months’ time, on May 20. But there will be no honeymoon, no bandwagon effect. As soon as his new term begins, Chen will face many stern challenges.

Four years after the defeat of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) after 50 years in power and Taiwan’s first transfer of political power to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Chen and Vice President Annette Lu defeated KMT Chairman Lien Chan and People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong by a tiny margin. This is the result of the deepening democracy in Taiwan.

The nation’s party structure has experienced a fundamental change. Although the KMT and its allies still have a majority in the legislature, it has already been established that their supporters are in the minority in Taiwanese society. The people of  Taiwan have chosen reform and progress and closed the door on the KMT, a party with an authoritarian and corrupt past. The new mainstream of  Taiwanese society has been firmly established.

During the presidential election campaign, society has once again suffered due to the intense campaign process and the tense election situation, the sharp confrontation between the pan-blue [KMT and PFP] and pan-green [DPP] camps resulting from their partisan attitudes, excessive social mobilization, and the broadening gap between ethnic groups. After the passion fades, it is imperative that society quickly return to normal.

The assassination attempt on the president and vice president on the eve of the election, which caught the attention of the international community, cast a shadow of violence over the election and added a black page to the history of democratic development in Taiwan. The attack shows that there still are people who do not understand Taiwanese democracy. They elevated a political election to the status of confrontation between enemies and adopted the strongest of methods to influence the outcome of the election.

Regardless of the motives behind the assassination attempt, the smooth and peaceful counting of votes has allowed the people of  Taiwan to demonstrate to the international community that Taiwanese democracy is vital and forceful.

Our political leaders, however, still lack sufficient maturity. Democracy cannot please everyone. Half of  Taiwan’s population will be happy with this result, while the other half will be disappointed. However, the people’s choice has been established, and everyone should respect the result. Lien announced that there were many doubtful aspects to the election process, that it was an unfair election, and that he therefore will demand that it be invalidated. The conflicts of the campaign will thus continue after election day, and the divisions in Taiwan remain as serious as ever.

Although Chen was re-elected by a majority, he must remain humble, because close to half the people of  Taiwan do not support him. This is an improvement on the minority position he has been in over the past four years, but the road ahead is full of political obstacles.

The first challenge of Chen’s second term will be to set an example by actively pushing for reconciliation between the political parties while also promoting ethnic harmony. The second challenge facing Chen on the domestic front will be the year-end legislative elections. The major political parties will start nominating their legislative candidates soon.

This is something that will involve the distribution of power among the different parties. For example, internal KMT succession issues, as well as the question of whether the KMT and the PFP should merge or cooperate, will come to the surface during the legislative nomination process. More important, the result of the year-end legislative elections will have a direct impact on future presidential power and policy implementation.

The biggest obstacle to Chen and his policy implementation over the past four years has been his inability to control a legislative majority. Because it still seems unlikely that the year-end legislative elections will produce a single majority party, the president will have to work hard to form a majority coalition.

The question of whether the new government to be formed on May 20 will become Taiwan’s first true coalition government will be a first test of the president’s ability to command a majority following the year-end legislative elections.

The initiation of constitutional and political reform will be another major challenge facing Chen. The issues of halving the number of legislative seats and introducing a single-district, two-ballot electoral system are closely related to the outcome of the year-end legislative elections. So is the question of the implementation of Chen’s campaign proposals—a system separating the three powers, a re-delineation of central and local government responsibilities, and the proposed schedule for a new constitution (to be implemented by 2008).

Chen’s first diplomatic challenge will be to mend the nation’s relations with the United States. Controversies surrounding the referendum have over the past few months put Taiwan-U.S. ties in an unprecedented situation. Chen’s first task will be to rebuild fundamental mutual trust between Taiwan and the United States, pledge to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait, and win Washington’s trust that Taiwan will not take the initiative to change the status quo or damage American national interests in the region. Chen will have to do all this quickly. The choice of  new representatives to the United States and negotiations on weapons procurement are related to this task.

Next, once a new government has been formed, it must take a more active approach to the cross-strait relationship, from economic negotiations (such as opening up direct links) to political discussions (such as establishing a “peace and stability” framework for cross-strait interaction). Faced with a rising Taiwanese awareness, the question of whether the Beijing government will adopt a more flexible or a harsher attitude also will influence the new president’s stance.

The survival of  Taiwan has always depended on economic development. The Taiwanese people have been dissatisfied with the poor economic performance during the past four years of DPP rule. In the next four years, the new government will still have to face many challenges to its economic policies. These challenges include reducing the overall unemployment rate, improving finances and balancing the budget, adjusting industrial policy, continued financial reform, adjustment of agricultural policy following Taiwan’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and enhancing international competitiveness.

The direction of the new government’s China policy will certainly have a significant impact on the future economic development of  Taiwan.

Before the election, many political observers, both at home and abroad, viewed the election as a historical watershed in Taiwan’s political development and cross-strait interactions.

The Taiwanese people have made their choice, firmly establishing mainstream opinion. At this crucial moment in Taiwan’s history, how can Chen lead Taiwan into a brighter future? The challenge is just beginning.

The author is a professor of political science at Tunghai University, Taichung, Taiwan.