The Blog

The Floridazation of Taiwan

After a bitter campaign, an assassination attempt, and a photo-finish election, the Kuomintang leads Taiwan into crisis.

11:30 AM, Mar 22, 2004 • By JOHN J. TKACIK JR.
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TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, eight Taiwanese pro-democracy activists organized a human rights day march in the southern city of Kaohsiung. When police blocked the progress of the demonstrators (who had a permit), violence broke out. The organizers were arrested, court-martialed for sedition, and sentenced to between 8 and 13 years in prison. Taiwan was a one-party dictatorship then, and governed under martial law. But following the death in 1988 of Chiang Kai-shek's son who was then Taiwan's president, the island swiftly democratized.

Taiwan's new democracy was admittedly young and a bit ragged around the edges leading into Saturday's presidential election, but it had all the appearances of a successful system. One reason had been the stabilizing influence of the Kuomintang (the "Chinese Nationalist Party," also known as the KMT), one of the oldest political parties in Asia, if not necessarily a particularly democratic one. After its defeat in the 2000 presidential polls by Taiwan's Democratic Progressive ("Green") party, the KMT formed a loose "Blue" coalition with other Taiwanese parties of the right which still wield significant influence in the country's legislature. The KMT coalition's most senior leaders, its dignified chairman, Dr. Lien Chan, and his vice presidential running mate, Dr. James Soong, were both respected in international circles as cultured and erudite politicians from one of Asia's most successful economies.

But that is over. On Saturday night, after a hard fought presidential campaign and a whisker-thin loss at the ballot box, the KMT coalition lashed out in a decidedly undemocratic way. The above-mentioned KMT elders abandoned the rule of law on Saturday night and Sunday by supporting--whenever they weren't leading--menacing crowds that laid siege to the Presidential Office in Taipei and abetted unrest in other cities. The election losers encouraged crowds in Taichung City to stage a midnight sit-in at judicial offices. At 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, KMT rioters in Kaohsiung broke down barricades at that city's procuratorate offices only to be repelled by a massive police presence.

Events began to spiral out of control on Saturday evening. When the last presidential vote was finally penciled in on the last hand-notated tally sheet, the KMT's Lien-Soong ticket lost to Taiwan's incumbent president, Chen Shui-bian, by a mere 29,518 votes (out of nearly 14 million). The 0.2 percent margin was surely a disappointing loss. This disappointment was no doubt compounded by deep, but unspoken, guilt that perhaps the KMT had brought the loss on itself.

THE KMT MIGHT HAVE ATTRACTED that extra margin of support it had not treated last Friday's election-eve assassination attempt on President Chen and his running mate with such callousness. The president was in Southern Taiwan on Friday on a whistle-stop motorcade city tour in an open-air Jeep when a bullet shot through the front windscreen. Rather than ripping head-on into President Chen's stomach, the bullet struck at the very instant President Chen turned to wave and carved a bloody half-inch deep groove 8 inches along his abdomen--the wound required 11 stitches. A second bullet apparently ricocheted into Vice President Annette Lu's knee. Ear-splitting strings of firecrackers masked the two pops from the assassin's pistol, and the unknown assailant (police believe there might have been a second shooter) disappeared into the crowd.

With the initial shock of the attack, Chairman Lien muttered his condolences and dispatched an aide to the hospital. But as news came that the president's wound, though deep, was superficial, the KMT campaign was seized with the prospect that a sympathy vote might cost them the election.

Almost immediately the KMT rumor machine slipped into overdrive. Private mobile phones all over Taiwan began getting text-messages that the assassination was a fraud and asked the receiver to pass it on. Soon, unsympathetic taxi drivers began telling foreigners (myself included, several times) that they heard Chen had staged the attack to gain votes. But this whispering campaign got little traction. That evening, eight hours after the president had been attacked, Jaw Shao-kang and legislator Sisy Chen, of the KMT coalition's far right wing, presided over TV talk shows which openly accused the president of faking his medical reports and clucked approvingly while others postulated that President Chen had arranged for himself to be shot in the gut. I watched two separate programs Friday evening and was appalled by the vitriol and outright lies that these people countenanced. Most Taiwanese I spoke with on voting day were equally horrified.