The China Desk
home | the strait scoop | by others | links | downloads
The Least of Three Evils
Taiwan's Year 2000 Presidential Election
February 17, 2000
The Presidential Hopefuls
Two weeks ago The Strait Scoop put former Taipei Mayor Chen Shui-bian (DPP) under the microscope, focusing on his humiliating public retreat from his former, hardline Taiwan separatist campaign platform.
This week we examine, very briefly, the ongoing mudwrestling contest between the two other leading contenders for the Presidency of the Republic of China, former Taiwan Provincial Governor James Soong (Independent), and current ROC Vice-President Lien Chan (KMT).
A Three Way Race
According to every poll conducted since James Soong officially declared his independent candidacy, the pro-reunification, reformist Soong has led by a comfortable margin. Until recently Soong's ratings remained well above 30%, while Chen's ratings hovered in the low 20% range, with third-ranked Lien Chan trailing in the 10 to 15% range. Former political prisoner and China scholar Li Ao (New Party), and former DPP Chairman Hsu Hsing-liang's (Independent) ratings have remained in the 1 to 2% range.
The ROC's Y2K presidential election is unlikely to result in a president elect with a clear popular majority. Instead the contest is going to be a three way race, with the winner squeaking by with a narrow plurality.
May the Least Evil Man Win
Dark horse candidates Li Ao and Hsu Hsing-liang have a "Chinaman's chance" of winning. This is sad but hardly surprising, given Taiwan's thoroughly corrupt, vote-buying, "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours," political culture.
Idealistic reformers Li and Hsu, who have announced their intention to take a firehose to Taiwan's Augean Stables, and in the process smash scores of iron ricebowls, can count on almost zero support. Through no fault of their own, they are unelectable.
No, the best man will not emerge the victor in Taiwan's upcoming March 18, 2000 presidential election. At best the least of three evils will win. What ROC voters are being offered is a choice between three more or less rotten apples. The best deal ROC voters are going to get, the only deal ROC voters are going to get, is the opportunity to select the least rotten one among them.
That, to many ROC voters fed up with the two major parties, means voting for independent candidate James Soong, whom Li Ao refers to as a "reformed whore" who finally saw the light and bid adieu to the KMT brothel.
James Soong's Grassroots
Soong's status as front-runner in the upcoming 2000 presidential election is his payoff for years of responsiveness to the needs of grassroots constituents in the Taiwan province's three hundred odd counties and villages.
Governor Soong was reknowned for being Johnny on the Spot every time any sort of natural disaster struck the island. Soong could be counted on to be right there, every time a typhoon struck, standing in flood water up to his knees.
Soong's political enemies accuse him of "putting on a show," not without some justification. Soong is a past master at milking photo ops for every drop of political capital they're worth. Reagan spinmeister Ed Rollins would have little to teach Soong.
With Soong however his photo op is merely the prelude. Soong, in contrast with Lee Teng-hui, actually delivers the goods. Soong's job performance rating when he was unconstitutionally forced out office by "Mr. Democracy," was well over 80%. Soong is so well-liked even 30% of the pro-separatist DPP has committed to supporting Soong rather than their own nominee, the abrasive and fanatical Chen Shiu-bian.
Lien Chan's Silver Spoon
Vice-president Lien Chan on the other hand, has never managed to climb out of the ratings cellar. And no wonder. Mr. Democracy's "hand-picked successor" is dismissed by every betelnut vendor and cab driver on Taiwan as a "fu bu chi di Ah Do," which roughly translates as "a loser who can't get it together."
Let me be clear, Lien is no dummy. Lien is plenty shrewd. He is a billionaire, among the wealthiest men on the island. How did Lien, nominally a civil servant for his entire adult life, accumulate such a vast fortune? Lien claims his mother made some shrewd real estate deals.
I'll bet she did. She and Hillary Clinton should sit down over afternoon tea and discuss real estate and cattle futures.
Lien Chan often travels across town to lunch with his extremely affluent mother. KMT sycophants cite this as evidence of Lien's "filial piety." How does Lien pull off this admirable act of Confucian virtue in gridlocked Taipei? His two hundred man motorcycle police escort blocks off Taipei streets along the entire length of his travel route so his limousine can reach his restaurant without slowing for a single traffic light.
Ordinary working stiffs attempting to cross the street for a NT $70 (US $2.00) "bian dang," or "lunch box," a cheap proletarian lunch consisting of rice, meat, and two veggies, must patiently wait for his Royal Highness to pass before they can attend to their own hunger pangs. Is it necessary to discuss the feelings Lien's imperial arrogance evokes in Taiwan's common folk?
Lien's public demeanor during Taiwan's 9-21 Great Earthquake hardly enhanced his image. When a hysterical, weeping woman whose child was trapped under a collapsed building clutched at the Vice-president, beseeching him to please save her baby, Lien's reflex was not to hold her and comfort her, but to tear himself away.
By the way, here's a question for Taiwan Lobbyists and China-bashers, or is that redundant? In what "open, vigorous democracy" does a "democratically-elected" president get to "hand pick" his successor?
White Terror, The Sequel
Lee Teng-hui, seeing Soong firmly in the lead, decided something had to be done. Lee initiated an all out, no holds barred campaign of state-sponsored libel and slander against Soong.
Lee went on television and openly accused Soong of embezzling KMT funds. I won't go into the Byzantine details of Lee's wild allegations here. They are readily available on the net. Singapore's Straits Times is an excellent source.
Suffice to say that Lee's charges actually backfire on both Lee and the KMT, because the funds in question originate from a huge KMT slush fund, controlled by none other than KMT Party Chairman Lee Teng-hui himself.
No matter. "Mr. Democracy" mobilized the immense political and financial resources of Taiwan's "democratic" government and aimed it like a howitzer at the hapless James Soong. Every ministry of the ROC Central Government, including those with no legal authority whatsoever to investigate private citizens like Soong, took part.
Lee Teng-hui did what former American president Richard Nixon did when he sicced the IRS and FBI on his political enemies. Only Lee Teng-hui made Richard Nixon look like a piker. Lee did everything Nixon did, only far more flagrantly, and on a far grander scale. The KMT, lest one forget, with assets very conservatively estimated at US$ 7Billion, is the wealthiest political party in the world, wealthier by far than even America's Republican and Democratic parties.
Lee's "White Terror, the Sequel" succeeded in generating enough ambivalence about Soong in the minds of less resolute, borderline Soong supporters. At this point Soong's numbers fell from the mid 30% range to the mid 20% range.
James Soong probably didn't know what Malaysia's former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim felt like being accused not only of corruption but of sodomy, apparently a felony offense in his country, by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammed. Well he does now. In fact I'll bet Soong feels like he's been sodomized front, back and sideways.
The CEO and the General Manager
One perceptive woman political analyst summed up Lee's disingenuous allegations on a cable television talk show rather nicely.
What happened between Lee Teng-hui and James Soong, she said, was like what happens when a powerful but unfaithful CEO keeps a mistress, unbeknownst to his wife, his board of directors, and the general public.
Fearful of public exposure, the CEO orders his company's General Manager to make out the rent checks for his little love nest, i.e., his mistress' conveniently located luxury apartment. The General Manager, in no position to say no, not if he values his job, clicks his heels and obeys.
Sure enough, the affair comes to light. What does the CEO do? He points the finger at his General Manager, saying "Your name is on the checks! Obviously you were having the affair with that woman! What does any of this have to do with me?"
Taiwan's State Controlled Media
Taiwan's Big Three broadcast television networks are either owned or under the indirect control of Lee Teng-hui's corrupt but powerful KMT. The three networks are TTV, CTV, and CTS. TTV is owned and operated by the Taiwan Provincial Government, or what's left of it. CTV is owned and operated by none other than the Kuomintang itself. CTS is owned and operated by the ROC military.
Political dissidents' sole recourse, aside from the internet, is what is referred to locally as "The Fourth Channel" i.e., cable. The problem with cable is that even the cable market is dominated by two giant conglomerates, the heads of which are cronies of, you guessed it, Lee Teng-hui.
Programming containing editorial content critical of or displeasing to "Mr. Democracy" gets yanked off the air, PDQ. Recently pressure has come down on Li Ao, Taiwan's Vaclav Havel/Rush Limbaugh, for his acerbic on-air criticisms of Lee Teng-hui's flagrant corruption, covert separatism, and obsequious Japanophilia.
If you've been smeared by the KMT's Joseph Goebbels style propaganda machine, good luck trying to clear your good name.
One from Column A, One from Column B
Interestingly enough, wavering Soong supporters did not shift their allegiance to either Lien Chan or Chen Shui-bian, but to the "undecided" column. This confirms that many ROC voters, like many American voters this year, want no truck with either major party candidate.
The waverers would sooner boycott the election altogether, rather than cast their ballots for either of the two major party candidates. They are disgusted with Lien, the corrupt "business as usual" candidate. At the same time they don't trust Chen, the "Who's afraid of WWIII?" separatist fanatic.
Instead they have adopted a wait and see attitude about Soong, wanting to verify whether he's really guilty of the wild allegations levelled against him by the KMT propaganda machine before making their final decision.
Soong has recovered somewhat, although not quite to pre-smear levels. Some rather clumsy damage control by the Soong campaign committee has pulled Soong's support back up into the upper 20% range.
Lee's gross violation of the principle of administrative neutrality has been roundly condemned on Taiwan as a regression to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's "White Terror," or for that matter, a Mao Zedong's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution "struggle campaigns." Taiwan Lobbyists and China-bashers, pay attention. "Mr. Democracy" has set back ROC democracy, such as it is, thirty years, in as many days.
What prompted Lee to risk undermining his carefully cultivated, and totally phony "Mr. Democracy" foreign media image, bought and paid for at enormous ROC taxpayer expense?
Lee Teng-hui, the latest buzz from inside the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs has it, is running scared. Lee is about to wet his pants at the prospect of what might happen to him if James Soong wins. As dense as Lee might be, and that's pretty damned dense, Lee is not so dense he has forgotten what happened to sundry other corrupt Asian strongmen, specifically Chun Doo-hwan and Roe Tae-woo of South Korea, and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines.
Lee must step down in May 2000. He sure as hell isn't looking forward to it. He has no choice. When Lee decided he coveted the mantle of "Mr. Democracy," he got what he wanted. At the same time, he painted himself into a corner. He soon realized he had to keep up appearances. He had to LOOK like a bonafide democratic reformer. He discovered to his dismay he could no longer be himself; he could no longer be the petty despot he was meant to be. Don't you just hate it when that happens? Like our "reformist" GOP Freshman Class of '94, Lee's been having second thoughts. Damn those pesky term limits!
Li Ao has already announced on his television talk show that he intends to file reams of legal briefs against Lee Teng-hui for bribery and graft, the very day Lee Teng-hui leaves office and loses his Executive Immunity.
Vote Early, Vote Often
Last election my local barber's daughter ran for "li zhang," the rough equivalent of alderman. The next time I went in for my regular trim, I asked her if her daughter had gotten elected. She snorted with contempt, "Three thousand NT a vote!" That's about one hundred American dollars. "Voters came right out and demanded that much from us. We don't have that kind of money! We campaigned on the basis of my daughters' character and integrity. We were so naive. I felt like such a dupe."
One hundred American dollars per vote, for a lowly alderman's office. An "investment" to be recouped once one's candidate is strategically positioned to dispense government largess in the form of countless infrastructure projects. Many of them built to shoddy standards resulting in their collapse with the first earthquake.
Now try to imagine what kind of quid pro quo we are talking about for "Mr. Democracy" Lee Teng-hui, President of the Republic of China, and would-be Father of a Republic of Taiwan?
Think back to 1996. Remember how the Brahmins of our mainstream western media oohed and aahed over Lee's "stunning 54% electoral mandate" at the polls? Remember how they solemnly intoned, to the exasperation of knowledgeable historians, that their just-filed stories were of enormous import because Lee Teng-hui had just become the "first democratically-elected president in 5000 years of Chinese history?"
Who wants to be a Millionaire?
At one utterly surreal photo-op during last years' 9-21 Great Earthquake, Lee Teng-hui stood behind a folding table piled high with shrink-wrapped bundles of cash, doling them out for the benefit of the TV cameras. The scene was straight out of a John Woo gangster flick, except that the triad boss divvying up the loot was none other than Mr. Democracy himself.
This was prime Lee Teng-hui. To Lee anything is for sale and anyone can be bought. Lee paid over $4.5 million to the high-powered Washington, D.C. PR firm, Cassidy and Associates, to smooth the way in the GOP congress for his "private" 1995 Cornell University trip. Lee offered a $15 million dollar "contribution" to Clinton and the Democratic National Committee to dispatch two carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Straits in 1996. Lee offered a $1 billion dollar bribe to the United Nations for an observer's seat for Taiwan in the General Assembly.
The Least of Three Evils
The best candidates by far are New Party candidate Li Ao and Independent candidate Hsu Hsing-liang. Unfortunately, as I have explained above, they are flat out unelectable. They are as unelectable as Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne, who was far and away the best candidate during our own last presidential election.
The best candidate by far among those actually electable remains James Soong. Lien Chan is a distant second. The least desirable candidate by far is Chen Shui-bian.
If truth be told, "Mr. Democracy" Lee Teng-hui has been such an unmitigated disaster, even Lien Chan or Chen Shui-bian, if elected, would probably turn out better than their senile predecessor. Even Lien or Chen, assuming one of them were, god forbid, to stage an upset and win, would probably be pragmatic enough to lead the ROC in the right direction, toward eventual, gradual, peaceful reconciliation with the Chinese mainland.
Actually the best thing about the ROC's Year 2000 presidential election is not who's going to succeed Lee Teng-hui. The best thing the upcoming presidential election is that Lee Teng-hui is not going to succeed Lee Teng-hui. Blessed relief on the part of the public that one is no longer going to be taking up space in the presidential office. Helluva legacy for Newsweek magazine's "poster boy for democracy."