Saturday, March 22, 2008


Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou won the presidential election in Taiwan and the two referendums on seeking membership in the United Nations failed.

What does the presidential victory for the KMT and the defeat of the referendums mean? So
complex is the history leading up to this day, only a fool would try to answer this question now. That, of course, does not stop us from wondering. In a story posted a couple of hours ago as the results were announced in Taipei, Keith Bradsher wrote this:
Taiwan elected on Saturday its first president who had campaigned for closer economic relations with Beijing, paving the way for a considerable lessening of tensions in one of Asia’s oldest flashpoints.

Ma Ying-jeou, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former Taipei mayor from the Nationalist Party, won by a convincing margin. He prevailed despite a last-minute effort by his opponent, Frank Hsieh of the Democratic Progressive Party, to warn that the Chinese crackdown in Tibet represented a warning of what could also happen to Taiwan if it did not stand up to Beijing.
a story just released on MSNBC,
Taiwan's opposition candidate cruised to victory in the presidential election Saturday, promising to expand economic ties with China while protecting the island from being swallowed up politically by its giant communist neighbor.
One wonders why the people of Taiwan would vote to elect a president from the political party that for 40 years ruled the island as the very antithesis of democracy, or as a
recent article in the Economist put it,
Its structure still followed the Leninist principles Soviet advisors had inculcated on the Chinese mainland in the 1920s, though it had become perhaps the world’s richest political party. A mass organisation of some 2.5m members, or nearly 15% of the population, it benefited from a rigged electoral system that ensured a permanent parliamentary majority, and, under martial law, a ban on opposition parties.
It was the party that presided over the “
White Terror” in the decades leading up to the 1990s.

But it was also the party that lifted marshal law in 1987 and allowed the first free elections:

Yet of all the people-power revolutions that sprouted and were sometimes savagely uprooted in Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s—the Philippines in 1986, South Korea in 1987, Burma in 1988, China in 1989 and Thailand in 1992—Taiwan’s, in 1990, was the most low-key and arguably the most successful. The KMT yielded—not without a fight, but without a shot being fired in anger.

Now, after eight years of a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president, the KMT is now back in power. Well, they were never really quite out of power. Even with a DPP president, the KMT still controlled the legislature, most of the government bureaucracies, and much of the press. The KMT was and is one of the wealthiest political parties in the world. So, on a day like today when only a fool would attempt to explain what happened in the election, one can wonder if, with enough money, an election can be bought.

One of the appeals of the KMT was the economic carrot of increased trade with China. Bradsher cites a conversation he had:

Jason Lin, a 41-year-old interior designer, said as he left a polling place in Taipei that he had always voted for the Democratic Progressive Party until this year and remains a member of the party. But he crossed party lines to vote for Mr. Ma on Saturday because he was convinced that Taiwan’s economic survival depended on closer ties.
“If we don’t get into China’s market, we are locked into our own country,” he said.
There are leaders in the KMT that seek unification with the Mainland, but Ma may not be one of them:
Mr. Ma has taken a more cautious approach to the mainland, attending annual vigils for those killed during the Tiananmen Square killings in Beijing in 1989 and denouncing the mainland’s repression of the
Falun Gong
spiritual movement over the past decade. During the campaign, he ruled out any discussion of political reunification while calling for the introduction of direct, regularly scheduled flights to Shanghai and Beijing and an end to Taiwan’s extensive limits on its companies’ ability to invest on the mainland.
In addition to the election of a president, there were also two referendums before the electorate. Both called for Taiwan to apply for membership in the United Nations. President Chen had placed the first one and it called for applying in the name of “Taiwan.” As a way to split the vote and defeat the measure, the KMT sponsored another calling for application in the name of the “Republic of China,” the traditional name of the government under KMT rule. The KMT also instructed its members to boycott both referendums. Taiwan's referendum law requires a majority of eligible voters to vote on a referendum for it to be valid. Nationalists called for voters not to cast ballots for either initiative and slightly less than 36 percent of eligible voters did so.

It is not difficult to guess why it proved impossible to get a statement of the will of the people on applying for membership in the U.N., something the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese want. Referendum maneuvering had a large and perhaps determining hand in the defeat, but one should not discount public fear of the consequences of expressing this will of the people. Beijing was adamantly opposed to this expression of democracy and the Bush, unwilling to irritate Beijing, publicly opposed the referendums saying they were “provocative” acts. The threat of attack from the Mainland and opposition from the United States may well have played a decisive role in the defeat.
It is ironic, isn’t it? In his second inaugural address, President Bush said:
So it is the policy of the United States to see and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture… The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.
One might ask the president, which is more provocative: a) China’s 1000 plus missiles aimed at Taiwan, or b) Taiwan’s democratic referendum on joining the United Nations?

Last week, in an interview with the man who inspired Taiwan’s democratic reform movement move than 40 years ago, Peng Ming-min expressed some pessimism about the coming election.
"I have started to doubt whether, in this kind of culture, democracy is possible and can function."

"For democracy to function, you have to have some self-control. You have to have some restraint," said Peng, whose 1964 secretly printed manifesto launched Taiwan's democracy movement with its demand for an end to one party rule and a declaration that the island is a nation independent from China.

That act of defiance against the military rule of the KMT former nationalist government of China, which fled to Taiwan after being defeated in the civil war by Mao Zedong's Communists, earned Peng an eight-year prison sentence. He escaped to Sweden and then lived in exile in the United States.

Peng returned to Taiwan in 1991 after martial law was lifted and the transition to multiparty democracy affirmed. He was the DPP's unsuccessful candidate in the first free and fair presidential elections in 1996.

In the end, as he talks, Peng's skepticism about the prospect of entrenching Taiwan's democracy beyond erosion drops away.

"When I look at the number of years it took many western democracies to achieve what they have now, I remember it's only been 20 years here," he said.

"As long as we are not taken over by China, there is hope."
When I was in Taipei in November of 2003 participating in a panel on “Taiwan’s Democracy and Human Rights,” we recounted years of the KMT’s harsh one-party rule. At a break, a young official in the KMT sought me out and said, “In the past, the KMT did a lot of bad things, but we are not the same party anymore.” I hope not.

- Milo

1 comment:

liz m said...

I hope not too. We'll just have to wait and see I guess.