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A View from Taipei
On the left, the DPP and TSU emblems (pan-green coalition) and on the right the PFP and KMT symbols (pan-blue coalition).

A View from Taipei

Norm Apter, a UCLA graduate student in Chinese history, is studying in Taiwan and offers this reflection on the presidential campaign underway there

Norm Apter Email NormApter

"[Many people say] each political party has expended more energy attacking their opponent's policies than advocating their own positions."

On March 20, 2004 voters will go to polls to participate in the third presidential election in Taiwan's history. This year's contest pits the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Chen Shui-bian against Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman - and former vice president - Lien Chan. In December 2003, President Chen announced that outspoken Vice President Annette Lu (Lu Hsiu-lien) would once again be his running mate. Mr. Lien's running mate, James Soong (Soong Chu-yu), is the founder of the People First Party (PFP), which has formed a coalition with the much larger KMT. Meanwhile, the DPP has struck an alliance with another smaller party, the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), founded by former president Lee Teng-hui. Over the past few months I have done some informal polling on this year's race as a window into Taiwanese attitudes toward a range of current issues of concern.

My own investigations, as well as polls in the media, suggest that support for the presidential candidates is roughly evenly split, but there appears to be two broad demographic trends at work. First, President Chen (whose hometown lies outside of the southern city, Tainan) commands greater support in the southern part of the island, while the Lien camp seems to have a firmer hold on Taipei and its outskirts in the north. Second, and perhaps more illuminating, I have found that whereas university students and young workers/professionals tend to throw their support behind the DPP and its program of reform, middle age Taiwanese tend to favor the KMT's return to the center stage of politics. While the DPP-TSU coalition champions environmental protection, raising the status of women, educational reform, and the rights of various ethnic groups, the central pillar of its political platform consists of the promotion of Taiwan's self-determination (perhaps eventually resulting in a formal declaration of independence) and Taiwanese identity. The KMT-PFP alliance, in addition to pledging to turn the economy around after the slump in recent years, criticizes the DPP for its "provocative" stance toward mainland China and proposes a more conciliatory attitude in cross-straights relations to ensure greater stability in the future.

Many of those who support President Chen and the DPP stress that the people of Taiwan only began to acquire a genuine voice and political representation in the late 1980s, when grass roots organizations and underground parties forced their way onto the scene and compelled the KMT to lift martial law and create a pluralistic political system. They feel that throughout the course of Taiwan¡¦s history its autonomy has been denied by a number of outside agents: the Dutch in the seventeenth century, the Qing court in the nineteenth century, the Japanese in the first half of the twentieth century, the KMT in the second half, and now the Chinese Communist Party, which threatens to use armed force should Taiwan explicitly declare independence. Others, who support the DPP but don't view the KMT's record in quite such negative terms, feel that after fifty years in power, the latter ought to "take a rest" for a bit longer. Only then will it be inspired to reflect on its past blunders and reform itself from within.

Meanwhile, those who support the KMT-PFP alliance emphasize the importance of political and economic stability above all else. They feel that the DPP¡¦s antagonistic line toward the mainland will continue to jeopardize stability, and ultimately economic growth, in the future. Though not particularly enthusiastic about the charisma or integrity of Mr. Lien and Mr. Soong (who, after all, ran against Lien in the 2000 presidential race), they feel that the KMT's larger pool of talent and greater experience in politics are reasons enough to vote the two leaders into office. Many criticize the DPP for ending construction of a nuclear power plant begun under KMT auspices, an action that, they claim, took a heavy toll on the island¡¦s economy. They also feel that educational reforms implemented by the DPP have weakened rather than strengthened the schooling system. And many KMT supporters claim that although Taiwan has a female Vice President, the position of women in government has not improved on the whole.

Ever since the buzz around SARS faded last summer, the hottest topic in the media has been President Chen¡¦s proposed referendum. In its original design the referendum would have given Taiwan's citizenry the right to decide on whether to formally declare independence. However, after Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to the U.S. in December and President Bush¡¦s unequivocal warning to Taiwan's leaders against initiating any "unilateral actions" (an interesting choice of words) that would upset the status quo, President Chen changed its content. In its first reformulation the referendum would have enabled the Taiwanese people to vote on whether mainland China ought to remove some 500 missiles positioned toward the island. Currently, the election-day referendum proposes to ask whether Taiwan should spend more on arms in view of the missile threat, as well as whether it ought to resume cross-straight talks. KMT supporters feel that the referendum plan is merely an election-year tactic aimed at arousing patriotic sentiment. Though support at referendum rallies last fall appeared strong (in the tens of thousands), the DPP supporters to whom I have spoken feel that while the idea of a referendum on independence is a good one, it ought not be implemented until the educational level of the populace is elevated to some extent to ensure that the majority of voters will be able to weigh all of the pertinent considerations.

Every Taiwanese I spoke with feels that Taiwan is in fact already independent. It has its own political system, its own currency, and its own system of defense. In view of this, why is there a need to formally declare independence? One young sales agent noted that hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese business people have invested and opened businesses in the mainland in recent years. As China's and Taiwan's economies become increasingly interlocked, she posited, the lack of a formal declaration of independence would enable mainland authorities to exert ever-greater control over island politics through the economy. Others feel that Taiwan's economic growth in past decades (it now has the world¡¦s fifteenth largest economy) and its successful transition to a multi-party democracy warrants greater participation in international bodies such as the World Health Organization. They feel that Taiwan's failure to join international organizations and its lack of prestige abroad are rooted in part in the absence of a explicit statement of independence.

One gets the impression that ever since the abolition of martial law, the people on the island are, for the first time, openly grappling with the idea of what it means to be Taiwanese. Debates over Taiwanese identity have naturally spilled over into central and local level politics. For example, people my age recall that when they were children only Mandarin was permitted in schools: those caught speaking Taiwanese in the classroom were fined. In recent years, however, Taiwanese language classes have become a standard part of the curriculum in elementary schools. High school teachers in the south have come under fire for their harsh criticism of the KMT¡¦s interpretation of history in the classroom. All new passports issued since September 2003 bear the moniker "Taiwan" as opposed to the former appellation, "The Republic of China." And, in addition to proposing the referendum, President Chen has called for altering the constitution in 2006 to reflect the many changes in society over the past decades. Unfortunately he has been less than clear on what exactly ought to be modified. It seems likely that questions over Taiwanese identity and the issue of de-Sinification will continue to play a major role in elections and everyday politics in the years to come.

While the positions outlined above represent two poles of the political spectrum, many ¡V perhaps even the majority ¡V of whom I questioned situate themselves between these positions and have yet to make a final decision. Eschewing any sort of party allegiance, they are waiting to see how each candidate "performs" in the debates during the run up to the election. Up to this point, they point out, each political party has expended more energy attacking their opponent's policies than advocating their own positions. In sum, all indicators suggest that it will be tight, exciting race and that the results will not be clear until all of the votes are tallied on election day.

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