Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 13

On May 20, Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian celebrated his second anniversary in office, having won Taiwan’s second direct presidential election in March of 2000, turning out the Kuomintang (KMT) that had governed the island for more than half a century. It has been a trying two years and assessing Chen’s presidency is difficult. His record ranges from deftly handling bad situations to bungling and exhibiting poor leadership.

To understand what problems Chen faced and how well he has led the country, it is important to consider certain background facts. He did not have a good mandate. He won less than half of the votes. Worse than that, his party had no experience governing at the top executive level. And the KMT had no taste for being the opposition and became obstructionist. James Soong, who led in the polls during most of the campaign and came within just over 2 percent of the popular vote of winning, formed a new party, the People’s First Party (PFP).

Taiwan ended up with an inherently unstable three-party system on top of its mixed presidential-parliamentary-cabinet political system. Both worked against Chen. The PFP and the KMT sought to make the government more parliamentary–which would have marginalized Chen. And they were not receptive to the idea of a coalition. Chen thus tried what he called “cohabitation”–cut ties with his party (the Democratic Progressives), proclaimed himself a “president of the people” and invited talent from anywhere to join his cabinet. He got nowhere.

Soon he found himself seriously at odds with both the KMT and the PFP. After a bitter feud over Taiwan’s fourth nuclear power plant, they attempted to impeach him. The effort failed, in large part due to Chen’s resiliency and his public appeal, but his presidency lost credibility regardless. His saving grace was that the opposition fell as badly as he did in the polls. Meanwhile, the plant “fiasco” (Chen scrapped it but then reversed the decision) sent the wrong signals to the business community and put Taiwan into recession. Or at least the timing suggested that.

As a result, in 2001 Taiwan experienced the first full year of economic contraction on record. The gross national product dropped by almost 2 percent. Unemployment hit marks most people had never heard of. The NT dollar fell to nearly a 15-year low, even though the Central Bank cut interest rates a dozen times. The housing and stock markets plummeted. Because stocks were the financial safety net for many companies, the effect on business was devastating. Labor unions hit the streets to protest. They accused Chen of hurting workers. Chen had made campaign promises to labor. He had also promised increased welfare. He resorted to deficit spending.

But Chen was a master at parrying blame. He explained that the opposition, the global economy and weaknesses in the U.S. economy were at fault. He was partly right. But Taiwan’s economy declined more than most of its neighbors, all of whom were equally vulnerable.

Meanwhile, though he had promised during his campaign to improve them, cross-strait relations were as they had been. This, however, was scarcely his fault: Beijing had labeled him a supporter of Taiwan’s independence and refused to deal with him. Otherwise, his foreign policy evidenced signs of success. The Bush administration took a tough stance toward China and was friendly toward Taiwan. But this is a matter of U.S. policy. Chen does not, in fact, merit particular credit for it.

He did make points in fulfilling his vow to rid the country of black gold. A number of officials were sent to jail. Bribery and other corruption decreased. But Chen’s accomplishments were not what they might have been. The legal system in Taiwan made it difficult to nab white collar and political criminals. The media made heroes of some of them. Chen tried to circumvent the system and was criticized for using unconstitutional means to help law enforcement. Also, offsetting his gains in building good government, and to the consternation of many foreigners (especially Americans), Chen appointed a former Taiwanese independence activist–who had tried to assassinate former President Chiang Ching-kuo during a visit to New York–to serve on his human rights advisory commission.

As the year-end 2001 legislative election approached, Chen focused his anticorruption efforts on vote buying. The opposition charged, accurately, that the move was politically slanted. Most citizens applauded him anyway. Chen’s own party ended up being charged with the same “sin” in the primaries. The media excoriated him for getting preferential treatment for his son in the military. Chen’s personal involvement in a sex scandal, while never proven, was given wide publicity because the purported source was none other than his vice president, Annette Lu.

Chen does deserve kudos for strengthening civilian control over the military. On the other side of the ledger, however, was his ethnic bias against Mainland Chinese (those who had immigrated to Taiwan after World War II). This resulted in a spate of resignations of top military officers and defections to China of some top intelligence people. Taiwan’s security was severely damaged as a result.

Whether Chen was a good or a bad president would be decided–many (including Chen) said throughout 2001–by the voters in December. He was in essence on trial. The opposition made his presidency, and especially his alleged mismanagement of the economy, a campaign issue. He attacked them in turn for gridlock and obstructionism.

And, despite his claims of not being a “party president,” Chen campaigned hard for his party’s candidates. And his party did well. The DPP became the largest in the legislature and, with the help of the Taiwan Solidarity Union (a new party formed late in the campaign with the help of former president Lee Teng-hui to help Chen), almost gained a majority. The KMT did very poorly. Soong’s PFP, however, did proportionally better than the DPP. It and the KMT ended up with a slim majority in the legislature. The bottom line: Chen was a winner. His stumping dramatically helped his DPP. He will now have an easier time getting legislation passed. He was vindicated on the matter of who caused political gridlock: The voters pronounced the opposition guilty. But how he and the DPP won immediately became the subject of speculation, primarily on ethics. They had played the “race” card. They bashed Mainland Chinese. Their campaign literature cited noted people who, because of their life struggle, should be seen as models. One was Adolf Hitler.

The DPP had also instructed its voters, who were more committed to winning than advancing democracy (due to being infected by “racial” politics), to vote for specified candidates. This helped many marginal and less qualified DPP candidates get elected. The practice had been going on for a long time, but the DPP had long condemned it and it was in fact quite undemocratic. Chen also escalated the war of words with China to his own and his party’s political advantage. He charged that his opponents wanted to sell out to Beijing. This fit in with his exploiting ethnic polarization. It was also jingoistic and risky. Even some of Chen’s supporters apologized after the election for how they had won. Pundits cited the “low politics” of the campaign and the ruling party provoking ethnic tensions.

Chen Shui-bian’s record is obviously a mixed one. He has, according to his supporters, “consolidated” Taiwan’s democracy. He has led Taiwan during a time of transition and has managed to deal with an opposition set on destroying him. He is currently popular in the polls. If an election were held today, he would be reelected. That says a great deal: that he will be able to lead Taiwan through troubled times–which the country is indeed facing. At the same time, his opponents blame him for wrecking the economy. He has created gridlock, evoked widespread cynicism about government, played dirty politics and paid more attention to polls than principles. Chen has two more years and perhaps another term after that to convince future historians one way or the other.

John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.