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Tense Times in TaipeiProtestors blocked from marching on the presidential palace in Taipei.

Tense Times in Taipei

A follow-up to "A View from Taipei," UCLA graduate student Norm Apter offers a personal account of the March 20 Taiwan election and its dramatic aftermath

By Norm Apter

"Democracy is a process; there is nothing absolute about it."

The election weekend began with a bang, quite literally.

At 3:30 pm on Friday, March 19, I arrived at my home-tutoring job to discover that just two hours prior, there had been an attempt on the lives of President Chen Shui-bien and Vice President Lu Hsiu-lien. The two had been standing side by side in a motorcade in Tainan, a city in southern Taiwan that has always been a bastion of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) support. One bullet scathed President Chen's stomach, enough to cause a nasty laceration that required stitches. Another struck Vice President Lu in the side of the knee. Although neither was in critical condition, tensions have escalated immensely since that point.

I had remained neutral over Taiwanese politics throughout the summer and fall, trying my best to listen to the views of Taiwanese citizens, the news, and the commentators. It was only about a month and half ago that I began to see that the DPP was truly the party for me. I have always liked President Chen Shui-bian much more than his Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) opponent Lien Chan and his running mate, James C.Y. Soong. President Chen has been a fighter for democracy his entire life. He, along with his running mate and all of the other top DPP leaders, spent time in jail in the 1980s as a result of their protest against single-party KMT rule. It is not so much President Chen's program of nativism (bentuhua) or his insistence on Taiwanese self-autonomy or eventual independence, but rather his unflagging democratic spirit that I find truly inspiring. He has fought ardently as a democracy activist in the days of martial law, as a defense lawyer for other pro-democracy activists and as a politician committed to putting his democratic ideals into practice.

A Belgian friend and I planned to visit both the KMT and DPP election headquarters on Saturday evening to find out the final election results and to listen to the victory speeches and concession of defeat. Both my friend and I are DPP supporters, but we wanted to check out the atmosphere at the KMT headquarters as well. When we met at 6 pm that evening, both of us felt that though the results were close, it was going to be a victory for the KMT. I had been watching the tallying of votes on the news stations ever since the polls closed at 4 pm, and it did not look too good for the DPP.

On the way to KMT headquarters, the cab radio announced that the KMT was ahead by 100,000 in the tallying of votes at that point (about 6:15 pm). We arrived to discover a circus-like atmosphere, as everyone there (along with the two of us) thought that the KMT had it in the bag. There were two singers and a band, performing all Western songs, from the theme music to "Hawaii Five-0" to the latest hits by the Black Eyed Peas. However, after about an hour, there was a strange indication that things might not be all that well. In between songs, the MCs came out and said something to the effect of "no matter what the results are tonight, we will continue to..."

The word "no matter" (wu lun) is not the marker of an assured victory, but we were in the lion’s den and it was impossible to determine what was really going on by that time. Nevertheless, over the next half hour or so, it was clear from some of the faces in the crowd that things were not going as they had anticipated. My friend finally found another foreigner, who informed us that indeed the DPP was now ahead by a very slim margin, with only the votes of two counties and one city to tally. We were both ecstatic. We knew what the next step was - make haste for the DPP election headquarters. We ran from the head of the crowd all the way back to Ba-de street, trying to contain our emotions.

We hopped in a cab and made our way to Nanjing East road. Suddenly, things started to feel really good. We found a huge stack of green (the official color of the DPP) head bands on the sidewalk as we came closer to the rally, and put them on our heads like the students who had protested against the Treaty of Versailles decision to cede Shandong to the Japanese in May 1919 and those who protested against government corruption in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The mood was electrifying. As we came closer, it was very clear that people loved the fact that two white guys had come out in full support of the cause of the DPP. They wanted to take pictures of us, shake our hands, give us high fives. They also gave us green face paint, red roses, little green flashlights, and flags with the DPP emblems. The atmosphere was very different from that of the KMT rally. I really felt that the people here were truly united over a common idea, a common spirit. There were no corny performances on stage. Rather, about 25 professors, activists, party members and officials sat calmly in three rows, and one person at a time, gave a speech or offered comments.

After about another hour or so, word came that all the votes had been tallied and that President Chen had gotten about 30,000 more votes than Lien Chan, a very narrow margin considering that total number of voters was 13 million. Lian and James Soong, however, were not willing to concede defeat, having come on stage at the KMT election headquarters at 8:20 pm to proclaim that the election was "without result" (wu xiao). Nevertheless, there remained a very sanguine atmosphere at the DPP rally as the top DPP leaders eventually arrived: Vice President Lu, Premier Yu Shyi-kun, Taipei County Chief Su, and, of course, President Chen Shui-bian. I was overwhelmed with awe by the presence of all of these leaders, over how far they had come and what they had to go through to get to this point. To say that it has been intense struggle would be an understatement.

We left the DPP election headquarters at 11:20 pm. I decided to keep my headband on to show my support for the DPP, despite knowing that the vast majority of Taipei residents support the KMT. I got reactions ranging from funny looks to debates in the subway over my political views. When I exited the subway, I decided to visit a Taiwanese friend of mine who is a police officer in the local precinct. I made my way to his police substation (paichusuo), but here I was careful to remove my headband and put down my flag, because the police are 100% behind the KMT (whereas President Chen vowed to cut police salary and benefits, President Lien promised a five-percent salary increase if he was to be elected). The mood at the precinct office was gloomy, as could be expected. We watched Lien and Soong on television telling viewers to sit quietly and await the results of their demand for a recount. When I went to bed at 2:30 am, KMT supporters were still gathered together at their election headquarters, refusing to disperse.

Yesterday, the center of action moved from the KMT election headquarters to a massive protest rally in front of the Presidential Palace. In the afternoon Lien and Soong showed up and made two appeals to the Executive Yuan: (1) to verify the ballots, and (2) to disclose proof concerning the Friday shootings that would convince both domestic and foreign experts that Chen and Lu were indeed shot and that it was not some sort of conspiracy to arouse the sympathy of those Taiwanese voters who had stood undecided in the middle round. To me, it is clear that Lian and Soong are now desperate. This is certainly their last chance to advance to a position of power. Having failed in the 2000 three-way presidential race, they have seemingly failed again in coming together on the same ticket in 2004. I don't think the KMT would be willing to put them up for a third time in 2008, so these appeals seem to be a last-minute act of desperation. The logic behind the KMT’s appeal is that since there are 40,000 (a higher than average number) invalid ballots (feipiao), perhaps it was the workings of the DPP to take away many of ballots that indeed were really for the KMT and declare them invalid. The claim that the assassination attempt was rigged is preposterous to me.

The crowd of KMT supporters at the Presidential Palace did not disperse on Sunday night. Large lines of police came in with full riot gear, poised to defend the palace and prevent anything other than peaceful protest from occurring. Taipei mayor Ma Ying-Jeou was put in a very difficult position. On one hand, he is a KMT member (and some say the likely candidate in the 2008 race). On the other hand, his job as mayor is to look out for all the residents of the city. The noise at the protest was unbearable for residents in the vicinity, as protesters were relentlessly sounding off air horns. According to municipal regulations, such public gatherings are required to wrap up by 10 pm. Mayor Ma came out and appealed to the crowd at 9:15 to "take care of themselves" in light of the rain and to be quieter. By 10 pm, nothing had changed. Mayor Ma came out again at 11:30 pm and asked everyone to go home, as the next day was a work and school day. His words had no effect whatsoever. The police issued three warnings that they were going to clear the square, but by the time I went to bed at 1:30 am, the situation had not changed.

This is how the situation in Taiwan currently stands. All of the ballots from the polling stations on the island have been sealed and sent to the Ministry of Justice in Taipei. The island's High Court could select a judge to rule on whether a recount is necessary as early as today, but it could take as long as two weeks for such a decision to be made. I think I learned one key lesson over the course of the past few days. Democracy is a process; there is nothing absolute about it. There is no state that is categorically democratic or undemocratic. But I am happy to say that Taiwan is truly on a path to democracy - it takes time, but with some patience we can expect the best for the future and can be very proud of what has taken place here over the past 25 years. The people have stood up.

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Click here to view Norm Apter's previous contribution, "A View from Taipei."

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For comprehensive information on and the media's coverage of the Taiwan election, visit AsiaMedia's special Taiwan Election page.

Asia Institute