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Chinese puzzle

Election intrigue in Taiwan makes Florida in 2000 look tame

Issue: "Darwin's meltdown," April 3, 2004

TAIPEI, TAIWAN-IMAGINE-NO, DON'T-A U.S. election in which the president and vice president, trailing in the polls, are both slightly wounded in an assassination attempt the day before the election. Imagine a leading legislator charging that the "assassination attempt" was actually a desperate ploy by the incumbents to win the election by gaining a sympathy vote.

Imagine also the president winning by one-fourth of 1 percent of the vote as election officials declare invalid almost 3 percent of all votes. Imagine the defeated candidate demanding that the election be annulled, and every one of the county's ballot boxes sealed, with a nationwide recount a likely next step. Imagine the press playing up rumors that the bullet removed from the wounded president was a different caliber from the shell casings found at the scene.

That all makes for drama even weirder than the U.S. "hanging chad" election of 2000-and that's what this island-nation of 21 million, that the United States is pledged to defend, now slouches through. The returns on March 20 showed President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party gaining 29,000 more votes (out of 13 million cast) than Lien Chan of the Nationalist Party-yet referenda that President Chen favored, which would have pushed Taiwan toward a harder line in relation to Communist China, lost decisively.

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The key referendum would have had Taiwan buy more anti-missile batteries to use in case of an invasion from the mainland, but more than half the voters followed Mr. Lien's call to boycott the referendum (which required more than 50 percent participation to be valid). Mr. Lien favors a conciliatory approach toward mainland China, with a special emphasis on stronger commercial relations. Some say that approach could lead to Taiwan being absorbed into the People's Republic on terms similar to those given Hong Kong.

Behind those political differences lie 55 years of troubled history. Beaten by the Communists, the Nationalist forces that had dominated China for a quarter-century retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Ever since then tensions have grown between native Taiwanese and the escapees from the mainland, who brought with them leadership talents but also arrogance. President Chen's core support is Taiwanese, while Mr. Lien's core is Chinese-"and don't forget it, buster," his tone communicates.

Memorable campaign moments led up to Election Day. Mr. Lien kissed the ground to show his love for Taiwan despite his fondness for closer ties to the mainland. Analysts discussed how the burial of ancestors in a dragon-shaped cemetery could affect a presidential candidate. One campaign's rally of 1 million supporters was topped by the other side's gathering of 3 million the following weekend.

Then came the pre-Election Day assassination attempt. Photographs showed a red streak across President Chen's stomach, apparently from a glancing shot; he required 14 stitches but was soon back campaigning, as was his knee-capped vice presidential running mate. Confusion dominated media accounts: No one gave a definitive answer about the number of shooters and the number of bullets. (At first only one bullet was found, leading to theories of a "magic bullet" deflecting off the vice president into the president.) Neither pundits nor officials knew whether the shooter or shooters were working for Beijng, or for gangsters who had placed big bets on the election. Conspiracy theorists, though, kept up their far-fetched charge that it was all a government plot.

Tension led to high voter turnout. The China Post reported that Buddhist monks in their robes, brides and grooms in their wedding gowns and suits, and aborigines dressed in their traditional attire all lined up to vote, with over 80 percent of potential voters casting ballots. When early returns showed Mr. Lien in the lead, tens of thousands of his supporters wore their campaign colors of blue and orange and let out rousing cheers. But as President Chen gained a slight edge, his adherents gathered in front of a backdrop displaying Chinese characters translated as "Heaven Blesses Taiwan." When government vote counters declared President Chen the winner shortly after 9 p.m., his supporters let out a huge roar and set off fireworks.

I come away from an Election Day visit to Taipei without any blinding foreign-policy insights (yes, we should review all old alliances in the light of new, anti-terrorist realities) but with new curiosity about Taiwanese politics and some dread about what the United States might expect in November if our presidential race is close. But am I glad that we in the United States have an electoral college, so that recounts don't require counting every vote in every state.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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