Taipei two-step.

What the foreign papers are saying.
March 25 2004 12:45 PM

Taipei Two-Step

Taiwan's presidential election is positively Floridian.

The assassination attempt on incumbent Taiwanese President Chen Sui-bian and Vice President Annette Lu last Friday, the day before their re-election, was only the beginning of a tumultuous week for the island nation. Chen, who's rocked the boat for years with his aggressively independent stance against China, won the election by a paltry 30,000 votes, a margin of just 0.2 percent. The margin seemed even smaller when election officials revealed that 300,000  ballots were "spoiled" in voting. Chen's opponent, KMT Party candidate Lien Chan, called for a recount, the country's high court sealed the ballot boxes, and thousands of KMT protestors mobbed the streets outside the presidential palace.

The crisis has cast Taiwan's schismatic relationship with China into sharp international relief. Chen has long worried Taiwan's neighbors and his own countrymen by pushing the envelope with China—on Saturday, his referendum on increasing independence from the mainland failed for lack of voter participation.

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Taiwanese commentators generally agreed that a recount should be carried out, and fast, though opinions are split on who is to blame for the crisis. "Opposition politicians should stop trying to foment unrest by spreading rumor and innuendo and stirring the already intense emotions of the crowds that have protested in front of the Presidential Office since Saturday," a strongly pro-Chen editorial in the Taipei Times pleaded. The China Post was more sympathetic to the opposition, arguing that Chen should comply with their demands for an immediate recount. The Post's editorial suggested that Chen gained 800,000 sympathy votes from the alleged assassination (the paper also supported Lien's call for an independent investigation into that affair), and suggested that by "unjustifiably raising the level of national security alert," he prevented tens of thousands of traditionally conservative police and military personnel from voting against him.

All the instability has, unsurprisingly, led Taiwan's stock market to tumble. It fell 9.4 percent on Monday and Tuesday of this week, just as London's FTSE market officials pondered upgrading the country to its list of "developed markets." Editorials in regional papers largely echoed the nervous tone of the Taipei press and expressed their fervent desire for relations across the strait to improve. "A democratic Taiwan and stable China-Taiwanese relations are necessary for both parties directly involved and for the peace and development of East Asia," suggested an editorial in South Korea's Hankyoreh (translation courtesy of Britain's Guardian). An editorial in Japan's Asahi Shimbun took the argument a step further, noting that Taiwan's growing notion of independence is drifting further from "the hard realities of international politics. … If Beijing is truly loyal to its 'one China' commitment, it needs to come to grips with the shifting sentiment of the Taiwanese population."

Two notable exceptions to the calmative international consensus emerged. The first, from the Korea Herald took a dim view of both candidates, but nevertheless framed Taiwan's relations with China as a David v. Goliath story. The Herald argued that as China and Taiwan grow more economically integrated, "it is crucial that the small island state proves the superiority of its political system over China, an emerging superpower." The second exception came from the Australian, which ran an editorial predicting that the recount flap will soon blow over: "The failure of the referendum means that Taiwan has moved further from, not closer to, ending its shadow-state existence and declaring full statehood. And a contested poll is no more an outbreak of chaos here that it was in the US four years ago."

Ironically, an "International Papers" from 2000, the year of the United States' own ballot box troubles, asked a very similar question about Chen's first election victory: "Who won Taiwan?"

Ed Finn is the director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English at Arizona State University.