Taiwan polls: Off the streets, into the
courts By Laurence
TAIPEI - Taiwan's disputed presidential
election has moved off the streets and into the courts.
This is good news for the island that was rocked by the
anger and passion of supporters of the losing side who
maintained a marathon demonstration outside the
presidential palace for a week.
In the March 20
election, the current governing Democratic Progressive
Party ticket of Chen Shui-bian and Annette Lu beat its
"pan-blue alliance" challengers, Kuomintang (KMT)
chairman Lien Chan and People First Party (PFP) chairman
James Soong, by a slim margin of 30,000 votes out of 13
million cast. The vote took place only a day after Chen
and Lu were wounded in a shooting incident in Tainan
Immediately after the result was
announced, the pan-blue alliance (named after the color
of the KMT emblem) claimed that the election was rigged.
(It made no accusations to this effect either while
balloting was taking place or while the vote was being
counted, though this is done in public and challenges
can be made on the spot). The accusations have been
slowly undermined since the voting took place, simply by
the release of facts rebutting pan-blue claims and also
by the government's willingness to make concessions
toward meeting demands for a recount.
It is hard
now to find any objective political observer who thinks
that the election result will be overturned by the
courts; in that sense the pan-blue challenge will end in
failure. But that might not mean failure for the
pan-blue leadership, which is using the challenge to the
election as a way to keep their jobs and a way to deny
President Chen Shui-bian the mandate he should, by
rights, be able to claim.
grievances The pan-blues have made a number of
allegations about the shooting and the balloting:
The shooting was a stunt organized by Chen to gain a
sympathy vote which would help him win the election.
Without the shooting the blues would have won the
election by 500,000 votes.
A national security alert proclaimed in the wake of
the shooting unfairly kept 200,000 military personnel
The vote count produced three times the number of
invalid ballots of the last presidential election,
suggesting unfairness in the tabulation process.
There were other irregularities in the way
procedures were followed at polling stations,
prejudicial to the fairness of the election.
far the pan-blues have demanded:
A recount of the ballots administered by the courts.
An investigation of the shooting at the highest
level and the involvement of hand-picked foreign experts
in the assessing of evidence.
An investigation into how many military personnel
were prevented from voting and why.
The annulment of the election and the scheduling of
Pan-blue behavior has been puzzling
since the election, often focused more on keeping in the
public eye than on the logic of their demands. For
example, a challenge to the election result cannot be
filed until the result has been officially proclaimed.
This happens seven days after the election.
Nevertheless, the pan-blues filed a lawsuit immediately
after the election - it was promptly kicked out by the
Taiwan High Court because it was filed before the
election result was proclaimed. Then on the day the
result was formally scheduled for proclamation, PFP
legislators whipped up a pan-blue mob to attack the
headquarters of the Central Election Commission and
trash the place in an effort to stop the announcement of
the winner - even though proclamation was necessary
before the pan-blues could begin the legal challenge to
which they were committed.
So far, most of the
"irregularities" cited by the pan-blues as evidence of
the election's unfairness are either non-existent or
easily explained within Taiwan's conventional election
Military personnel The
national security mechanism put in motion after the
president's shooting consists of high-level
consultations between the cabinet, the armed forces and
other security-related agencies, the purpose of which is
to ascertain China's immediate military intentions. Its
implementation on March 19 did not result in any troops
being deprived of their right to vote.
troops could not vote, however, because Taiwan puts part
of its armed forces on combat alert during elections,
and most of the troops affected were unable to return to
their registered places of domicile to vote.
This year, according to the Ministry of National
Defense, about 37,000 troops were affected in this way,
about one-ninth of the total armed forces, compared with
one-sixth who were similarly affected in the
presidential election in 1996.
ministry admits that 13,000 of these could have voted
except for a change in regulations which, though it was
implemented last year under the DPP government, was in
fact the result of new legislation passed in early 2000
when the KMT was still the governing party.
Ministry of National Defense is adamant that it has not
been politically partisan in any way concerning the
election. It is worth pointing out that the ministry,
from the minister down, is staffed almost entirely by
The invalid ballots The
larger number of invalid ballots, compared with the last
election, was the result of changes in the balloting
procedure passed by the pan-blue-dominated legislature
Previously a ballot was considered
valid if the ink stamp mark used to make a vote was
placed in such a way as to express a voter's intention -
in the proper box provided, on the candidate's number or
on the candidate's picture. Vote buyers often asked
their voters to place their votes in odd places so they
could see how effective their buying had been - votes
are displayed in public when counted. To frustrate this,
the legislature amended the election law last year to
insist that only votes stamped inside the proper box
would be considered valid.
These more exacting
standards account for the larger number of invalid
ballots, as may the activities of the "Million Invalid
Ballots Alliance, a group of organizations with vaguely
socialistic concerns about the rights of workers and the
poor, who had encouraged people to cast invalid ballots
to show their frustration with a political system
dominated by wealthy parties and candidates which paid
no heeds to the interests of the worse off.
Other irregularities The KMT claims to
have evidence of "more than 1,000" irregularities at
polling stations on the day of the vote. Of the very
small number it has made public, most are concerned with
infractions of the rules for running the polling
stations, which would not in themselves have any bearing
in the vote. The pan-blues' charges have managed to
alienate one of their key support groups, teachers.
Polling stations are usually located in schools and
teachers are drafted to run them. The teachers, most of
whom are pan-blue supporters, deeply resent being cast
as the willing tools of DPP dishonesty.
sympathy vote The only evidence that the
pan-blues would have won the election by 500,000 votes
comes from the pan-blues' own polls released early March
19. There is no more reason to believe these than to
believe a DPP poll released 12 hours earlier that
predicted a DPP win by 160,000 votes. Polling subsequent
to the election suggests that there was in fact no
sympathy vote for the president.
shooting As to other conspiracy theories about
the shooting, first the pan-blues tried to say that it
never happened at all. When medical evidence was
produced that the president was indeed shot, the
pan-blues refused to accept it until it had been
reviewed by foreign experts. Three US experts spent two
days examining evidence and the president's wound. Their
conclusions tallied exactly with the government's
version of events.
The pan-blues have now fallen
back to a position in which, admitting the president was
actually shot, they have suggested that he had been
intentionally only slightly wounded. The head of the
Criminal Investigation Bureau, Ho You-yi, has rubbished
this claim, saying you cannot "shoot to wound" someone
in the stomach.
Although Ho is a police officer
of unimpeachable integrity and extraordinary personal
bravery - as demonstrated by his arrest of the multiple
murderer Chen Ching-hsing in 1996, ending a hostage
siege - the pan-blues say that his word cannot be
trusted because he was promoted to his present position
by President Chen. They have thereby alienated another
core constituency, the police, who deeply resent being
cast as both incompetent and political clients.
Currently the pan-blues want either a high-level
judicial or legislative commission to run the
investigation of the case. Putting a criminal
investigation in the hands of the legislature would not
only be unconstitutional, however, but given that the
legislature is arguably the most hopelessly inefficient
government-related body in Taiwan, assigning it power
over the investigation is seen by many people as
ensuring the gunman would never be caught.
Wednesday, March 31, the Control Yuan, Taiwan's highest
watchdog body, said it was going to launch an
investigation into whether any "administrative
malfeasance" had contributed to the March 19 shooting of
What has the government
offered? Almost everything, at the time of
writing. In a compelling speech on Saturday night, Chen
invited the pan-blues to re-file their lawsuit seeking a
recount, saying that as the defendant in the suit he
would waive his right to object, thereby allowing the
recount to take place as soon as possible under the
supervision of the courts. Chen's objection would have
forced court hearings on whether there should be a
recount, and causing delay.
Chen also acquiesced
in allowing foreign participation - the examination by
medical experts - in the shooting investigation.
Also in an usual display of toughness, he said
that he would do whatever was necessary to bring the
world's finest marksman to Taiwan to try and "shoot to
wound" Lien Chan in the same way he was wounded. If that
was possible, Chen added, he himself would step down,
and if Lien refused to take the risk, "he should just
Where now? The pan-blues
re-filed their case late Monday night and Chen sent in
his waiver Tuesday. The recount will take place once its
organizational details, which are largely up to the
Taiwan High Court, have been thrashed out, probably
within a week.
There is very little chance,
however, that the recount will produce a result very
different from that of March 20. The exceptional
transparency of the original vote-counting procedure
precludes much margin for error.
have, however, said that, in any case, the recount will
not redress all their grievances about the election.
They will still seek to have the election annulled.
Originally they claimed that after the March 19
shooting the election should have been delayed, and they
wanted to use this as the basis for their case. Since
the election law specifically says that the election
must go ahead unless one of the candidates is killed,
the pan-blues have been forced to fall back on those
unspecified "irregularities" in order to back up their
This will be for the court to decide. But
the issue for the court is not whether the rules in
polling stations were followed to the letter, but
whether they were broken in ways that would
significantly alter the outcome of the election.
For example, after the election pan-blue cable
TV frequently replayed a polling station video in which
an elderly female voter, obviously visually impaired,
let the small child, who had been allowed to accompany
her into the balloting area, put the chop on the ballot
paper and put the ballot in the box. Obviously this
breaks a number or rules but is it, or incidents like
it, significant enough - especially given that it is
impossible to know for whom the ballot was cast - to
annul the election? Few legal experts think so.
If the pan-blues really have 1,000
irregularities for the court to investigate, this is
going to take a long time. The court says it must finish
the investigation within six months, and even this
time-frame is considered very tight by some experts.
Decision could be a year off The
pan-blues have said that if the move to annul the
election is rejected by the High Court it can be
appealed to the Supreme Court. Legal experts say this
could take a further 12 months. So it is entirely
possible that the very last word on the legality of the
election might not come until the autumn of 2005, more
than a year into a second Chen term.
legal experts think that the pan-blues have a case so
thin that the chance of the election being annulled is
barely above zero. Which raises the question, why, after
the recount, which will settle the issue in the minds of
most people in Taiwan, including many people who voted
for them, do the pan-blues persist?
may lie in the internal politics of the pan-blue
movement. Lien Chan is now a three-time loser. He has
lost two presidential elections as well as led his party
to utter humiliation in the legislative elections of
2001. Any other party in almost any other country would
have ousted him. But he has managed to avoid the party
taking a serious look at his unimpressive leadership by
claiming that the election is not over. The "fight for
justice" as the KMT likes to call it, continues, and at
such a time the party needs unity, not recrimination and
a power struggle.
The effect of this struggle is
likely to make only the KMT, and therefore the
pan-blues, even more unelectable. The alliance needs to
recognize that it is now the minority. By only a
razor-thin margin, they might reply. But the real point
they must address is that the DPP's support has climbed
from 39 percent to just over 50 percent in just four
years. If the pan-blues want to reverse this trend, they
need a serious rethink of exactly what they stand for.
The problem is that this is not going to happen while
Lien Chan remains the party's leader. And so far his
strategy for hanging on to his job seems to be holding.
An elaborate masquerade This casts a
different light altogether on affairs in Taiwan. In the
days after the election, with a mob camped outside the
presidential office and talk in the air of declaring a
state of emergency or martial law, it looked as if
Taiwan was in a staggering constitutional crisis.
But after the pan-blues went home - encouraged
by Taipei City Police and Chen Shui-bian's Saturday
night speech that effectively combined conciliation and
reason with steel - the issue is slowly deflating into
an elaborate masquerade by an aging political failure,
Lien, aimed at diverting attention from his own poor
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