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TAIWAN: Presidential Election

Author: Esther Pan
March 18, 2004
This publication is now archived.

What are the main issues in the upcoming Taiwan election?

Experts say the biggest issues in the March 20 presidential vote are Taiwan's relationship with China and the island's economy. Also significant is a contentious referendum, introduced by the incumbent, President Chen Shui-Bian, the results of which could embolden advocates of Taiwanese independence.

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Who are the candidates in Taiwan's upcoming presidentialvote?

Incumbent president Chen Shui-Bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is running for re-election against Lien Chan of the Kuomingtang Party (KMT). While campaigning on March 19, Chen and his running mate, Vice President Annette Lu, were wounded in an apparent assassination attempt. Neither suffered life-threatening injuries. Both were released from the hospital after several hours, and officials said the election would proceed March 20 as planned.

What do we know about the parties?

The two parties represent divergent visions for Taiwan, an island with 23 million inhabitants off China's southern coast. The KMT, which governed Taiwan from 1949 to 2000, has historically seen Taiwan as a part of "one China." Its leaders were mainland Chinese who fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party after the Communist Party took power in China in 1949. The KMT established a separate government-in-exile in Taipei, setting itself up as the alternative to communist rule and hoping one day to return to power in Beijing. The KMT's often harsh rule on Taiwan included discriminatory laws against the Taiwanese people and nearly 40 years of martial law, which was lifted in 1987.

The DPP was established in 1986, and became legal in 1989 after a longtime ban on opposition parties was dropped. It envisions Taiwan as an independent nation, separate from China. In 2000, Chen was the first DPP candidate to be elected president. Taiwanese sovereignty is the first and most prominent issue on the party's platform. Many of the DPP's members are ethnic Taiwanese.

How have the candidates addressed relations with China?

Chen has been direct about confronting China on Taiwan issues, while Lien favors a more conciliatory stance. Chen has labeled Lien a "sellout" for his position, says Shelley Rigger, a professor of political science at Davidson College and an expert on Taiwanese politics. Eric Heginbotham, senior fellow in Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the KMT is countering by accusing Chen of rashly baiting Beijing. "They'll say, 'Under our leadership, we had a stable relationship with China and a rich democracy in Taiwan, which Chen has squandered,'" he says.

What have the candidates said about independence for Taiwan?

After 50 years of Japanese occupation--from 1895-1945--and the long KMT reign, many Taiwanese are now pushing for self-determination. Chen is a strong advocate of increased autonomy and eventual independence for Taiwan. Lien had held the traditional KMT position in favor of one day unifying China and Taiwan under the Nationalist banner; however, he has shifted that stance recently in the face of growing pro-Taiwan public opinion. Lien's new slogan is "Taiwan First." "The KMT needs to stay in touch with the Taiwan mainstream," says Richard C. Bush III, senior fellow and director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at The Brookings Institution. "They can't lean too close to China."

What are the candidates' positions on the economy?

Since Chen came to power in 2000, Taiwan has suffered its first recession, much of it related to the global downturn and the SARS virus. But the island's growth is forecast at 6.3 percent this year, according to Time magazine, much of it driven by trade with China, Taiwan's third-largest trading partner. Taiwanese firms have invested some $70 billion on the mainland, according to the U.S. State Department. But Chen argues that China is not Taiwan's primary economic engine; he favors stronger controls over cross-strait business. Lien is seen as pro-business and would likely expand direct trade and transportation links between China and Taiwan. The KMT coalition "could probably do a better job of running the economy," Bush says. "They're the ones who built the economic agencies that exist in Taiwan today."

Do the polls indicate a likely winner?

It's too close to call. The two candidates consistently poll within 5 percentage points of each other, and some 20 percent of voters are undecided, experts say. "There is a high level of frustration, disappointment, and just general disgust with the state of political play in Taiwan," Rigger said at a recent panel discussion of the Taiwan election. The tone of the campaign has been harsh and negative, experts say, with accusations about infidelity and corruption leveled at both candidates. This has led to "a lot of voter burnout and negativity fatigue" that may cause voters to stay away from the polls, Rigger says. However, both parties held rallies in recent weeks that produced record turnouts of more than 1 million people for each party, which may indicate that interest is building as the election approaches, experts say.

Is Taiwanese nationalism a factor in the election?

Yes, experts say. When Chiang Kai-Shek and his defeated Nationalist Party came to Taiwan in 1949, there was a "miniscule" group of people who wanted a Republic of Taiwan, Bush says. But many years of repressive and discriminatory laws against the native Taiwanese--including one banning the Taiwanese language in schools--created the island's modern nationalism movement. Today, residents of Taiwan identify themselves as both Chinese and Taiwanese. In a recent poll taken by Taiwan's Chengchi University, the number of Taiwan's residents who considered themselves exclusively Chinese fell to 10 percent from 26 percent in 1992, while the number who considered themselves exclusively Taiwanese rose to 42 percent from 17 percent in 1992, Time magazine reported.

What is China's position?

Experts say China would prefer a Lien victory. "China's worried about this gradual drift to independence [under Chen]," Heginbotham says. China's leaders, he says, see Chen as a troublemaker who could disrupt international relations and provoke a diplomatic or, in the worst case, military clash. But China's leadership is also extremely aware of the country's need for foreign direct investment--estimated to total $50 billion per year--and stable international relations for continued economic growth, he says. If Chen wins the election and continues to make provocative statements, China may take some symbolic gesture to show its displeasure. But unless Chen embarks on constitutional revision or takes other definitive steps toward declaring sovereignty, Heginbotham says, China probably "won't burn its bridges" by applying economic sanctions or undertaking military action. "As long as the hope of unification is still possible, China will allow Taiwan a lot of leeway," Bush says.

What is the U.S. position?

Analysts say the Bush administration came into office focused on improving relations with U.S. democratic allies in the region, including Taiwan. The U.S. Defense Department in particular has worked to create a closer relationship with Taiwan's military, says Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr senior fellow and director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Experts say the U.S.-Taiwan relationship has traditionally been characterized as "strategic ambiguity": Washington recognized Taiwan until 1979, when it shifted diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Since then it has supported China's "one China" policy: there is only one China, whose government is in Beijing, and Taiwan belongs to China. After a meeting with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in December 2003, President George Bush rebuked Chen, saying, "We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo. And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose."

Is the March 20 presidential vote Taiwan's only election this year?

No. In December, Taiwan will hold legislative elections in which all 225 seats in the country's parliament, known as the Legislative Yuan, are up for grabs. If the president's party also wins a parliamentary majority, experts say, he will be able to wield considerable power. Currently, the KMT has a slight majority in the Legislative Yuan, which Chen has blamed for blocking many of his proposals.

What is the referendum on the ballot?

The referendum, introduced by Chen, asks the following questions:

  • Should Taiwan increase its defense budget if China refuses to remove the 496 missiles it currently has pointed at Taiwan?
  • Should Taipei engage in dialogue with Beijing to establish a peace and security framework?

Chen argues that the approval of the referendum questions will deepen democracy in Taiwan, but experts worry that he use the results--combined with a re-election victory--as a mandate to promote other proposals, including perhaps a referendum in 2006 to approve a new constitution. Under Taiwan's current constitution, any amendments must be approved by the legislature; experts say Chen seeks to change this process so that a new constitution--for example, one that unilaterally redefines Taiwan as a sovereign state--could be approved by public referendum. The idea of allowing Taiwanese people to potentially vote on independence makes China anxious, experts say. "China sees this as creating a wholly new state through an act of self-determination," Bush says.

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