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KMT Split Handed Chen the Presidential Victory

By Gang Lin

On March 10, 2000, I went to Taiwan to observe the presidential election, together with a group of overseas Chinese political scientists.[1] During this trip, we visited pre-election campaign assemblies in Taipei organized by the principal presidential candidates; participated in several academic seminars; and met with various politicians, officials, and policy analysts. The trip was both informative and timely given the unprecedented victory of the opposition party. Our observations lead us to single out several important factors that contributed to the victory of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The Split of the Ruling Nationalist Party (KMT)

It is obvious that without the split of the KMT, the DPP would not have won the presidential election. The votes (60%) shared by Lien Chan of the ruling Nationalist Party (23%) and the independent James Soong (37%), who used to be a key figure in the ruling party, far outnumbered what Chen Shui-bian of the DPP received (39%). Both Lien and Soong were President Lee Teng-hui's protegees. Soong was elected governor of Taiwan province in 1994, and Lien has served as vice president since May of 1996. At the end of 1996, the ruling party decided to streamline the structure and functions of the government of Taiwan province and to suspend all provincial-level elections. This triggered a severe power conflict within the party, with the result that Soong lost his principal political base.

Although Soong enjoyed popular support throughout the island and many KMT members hoped that Soong would be Lien's running mate in the presidential election, the two figures were unable to work as a team due mainly to the personal bitterness between President Lee and Soong. Without a system of party primaries to determine who should represent the KMT, Lien was designated as the party candidate by Lee Teng-hui, while Soong was purged from the party after he decided to run as an independent candidate.

The KMT power conflict provided a rare opportunity for the DPP. In 1999, the DPP had encouraged Soong to run for president as an independent by revealing its opinion polls, which indicated Soong enjoyed much greater popularity than either Lien Chan or Chen Shui-bian. As DPP Secretary General Yu Shyi-kun told me a year ago, Lien and Soong were both friends and enemies of the DPP; without the competition of Lien and Soong, the DPP had no hope of winning the presidential election.[2] The conflict between Lee/Lien and Soong led to the exposure of Soong's questionable financial activities while in office, which eventually tarred the KMT as well as Soong.

One interesting phenomenon of the KMT split was the dumping/saving or qi bao campaign strategy. In striving to get swing votes, both Lien and Soong headquarters claimed the other side had fallen behind in the race by leaking their strategic polls and "internal estimates." Declaring Soong had no hope of winning, Lien's supporters asked swing voters to dump Soong in order to save Lien in his tight competition with Chen Shui-bian. Likewise, Soong's supporters also appealed to swing voters with the slogan "dumping Lien and saving Soong."

Voters who disliked Chen but could accept either Lien or Soong therefore faced a difficult choice. I interviewed several who told me they had cast their ballots for Lien because KMT's internal polls had led them to believe Lien would have more votes than Soong. Had the KMT not misled them, they would have supported Soong, and Soong would have won the election. A feeling of being cheated was so strong among these KMT loyalists that they joined demonstrators around the KMT headquarters right after the election and eventually forced Lee to resign as KMT chairman.

The Corruption of the KMT

The fact that less than 24% of the voters cast their ballots for the KMT candidate revealed people's mistrust of the ruling party's ability to resolve the problem of "black gold": the KMT's connection with organized crime and money politics. In the past, the KMT often nominated powerful figures with backgrounds in organized crime to run for local elections. Buying votes is another open secret in Taiwan's domestic politics.[3] While vote buying is unusual now in urban areas, it is still widespread in rural areas. One vote may cost as much as 5000 Taiwanese dollars (equivalent to U.S. $170).

Another issue related to money politics is that the KMT often paid people 300-500 Taiwanese dollars to attend the assemblies and parades sponsored by the ruling party during the election campaign. The ruling party also spent a lot of money on advertisements for candidates Lien Chan and Vincent Hsiao. In addition to campaign brochures and flyers, free caps, vests, and jackets with Lien and Hsiao's names or logos were widely distributed. Big campaign banners with Lien and Hsiao's names and pictures could be seen everywhere along the streets, easily outnumbering those of other candidates. It was estimated that the KMT spent more than 10 billion Taiwanese dollars on the presidential election campaign, much higher than the amounts spent by two opposition groups.

The KMT has long promised to resolve the issue of "black gold," but its attempts were either blocked by vested interests or else overridden by the priority of staying in power. The KMT has enormous property holdings valued at more than 100 billion Taiwanese dollars (equivalent to U.S. $3.3 billion). The party's accumulation of real estate, along with its inability to break its ties to organized crime and money politics, have been the subject of widespread criticism over the years. Several influential scholars supporting Lien Chan told me that if Lien had won the election, they would have advised the KMT to to resolve the problem of "black gold" through political reform as it would otherwise face losing the presidential election in 2004.

The "Lee Yuan-tze Effect"

Before we went to Taiwan, it was not certain who would win the election: Lien Chan, Chen Shui-bian, or James Soong. The clouds began to clear directly after our arrival in Taipei when Lee Yuan-tze, the famous Nobel laureate and president of Academia Sinica, declared his support for Chen. Following his example, a number of intellectuals and entrepreneurs moved into the DPP camp. The changing balance between Lien Chan and Chen Shui-bian was evident during the campaign assemblies and parades. On Saturday March 11, Lien's camp organized a parade in Taipei, while Chen's camp gathered many more supporters in a rally in Kauhsiung. On the eve of March 18, Chen's assembly again attracted more supporters than that of Lien Chan. According to Taiwan's electoral regulations, poll results cannot be released during the last ten days of a campaign. Thus, the number of people attending the campaign rally becomes an important mark of which candidate is more popular, and this in turn tends to influence voting behavior.

Lee Yuan-tze's endorsement benefited Chen in two principal ways:

1. Lee Yuan-tze had no historical connection with the DPP and the movement toward Taiwanese independence; on the contrary, he had maintained good relations with Beijing. Thus his endorsement of Chen Shui-bian relieved some voters' concern that Chen would pursue Taiwan independence once he was elected.
2. Lee Yuan-tze is a close friend of Lee Teng-hui. Thus his support of Chen Shui-bian made a number of Lee Teng-hui's followers believe that Lee Teng-hui himself might prefer Chen to Lien.
Lee Yuan-tze's support increased Chen's vote by 3%, according to the DPP's estimate.

Lee Teng-hui's Ambiguous Attitude

Because of Lee Teng-hui's strong influence in Taiwan, his attitudes toward the different candidates became a hot issue during the presidential election. It was obvious that Soong was the candidate Lee most disliked. But did he prefer Chen Shui-bian to Lien Chan, as some people claimed? In promoting Taiwan's constitutional reform over the past decade, Lee also changed the KMT from a mainlander-dominated party into a Taiwanese-dominated party with the policies of

* maintaining Taiwan's independent sovereignty
* downplaying the one-China principle to enhance Taiwan's international profile
* initiating direct presidential elections
* streamlining the structure and functions of the government of Taiwan province.
Such policies coincided with the DPP's proposals over the years. This contributed both to the establishment of the Chinese New Party by a group of former KMT members with mainland backgrounds and to so-called "Lee Teng-hui sentiments" among some DPP members. It has also resulted in divisions within the KMT: one faction has a pro-Lee Teng-hui affection, and the other is more skeptical and critical of Lee.

Because of Lee's popularity, Chen Shui-bian intentionally positioned himself as the real disciple of Lee's political ideas. Lee of course devoted much of his time to supporting Lien Chan during the election season. But Lee's performance in mass assemblies failed to satisfy Lien's campaign workers, most of whom were mainlanders. They expected Lee Teng-hui to win over more of his fans by further distancing himself from leading intellectual Lee Yuan-tze and attacking Chen Shui-bian more severely in the campaign's last days. By the same token, they expected Lee to assuage his enemies by declaring his willingness to transfer his chairmanship of the KMT to Lien after the election.[4] However, Lee met neither expectation.

It is puzzling why Lee would allow a group of mainlanders to dominate Lien's campaign headquarters and advocate moderate policies toward Beijing. Unlike Lee's pronouncement of "special state-to-state relations" with Beijing, Lien's "ten points" on cross-Strait relations carried a signal of "returning to the National Unification Guideline." According to that guideline, the sovereignty of the Republic of China covers the whole of China, though its current jurisdiction reaches only Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matzu. Given Lee's role in promoting Taiwanization and maintaining Taiwan's independent sovereignty, it is doubtful that he supported Lien's positions on these issues. If Lee foresaw that Lien would fall behind Chen Shui-bian and James Soong, a better choice might have been "dumping Lien to save Chen."

In addition to the above-mentioned factors, several other elements contributed to the DPP's victory including

* its downplaying of the issue of Taiwanese independence
* its proposal to open three transport links across the Taiwan Strait. This is something China wants but that the KMT governments have always refused.
* Chen Shui-bian's announcement that he would stop participating in the party's activities after he became president. This apparently eased the concerns of those who felt that the election of Chen Shui-bian could lead to further tension between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.
Thus Taiwanese voters came to believe that Chen was capable of handling strait relations as well as resolving the longstanding problem of money politics in Taiwan.

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