“As you know, the president must carry out his responsibilities to the best of his abilities and conscience, but it must be done with taste and skill, otherwise one might become an object of ridicule, or provoke general hostility, and rightly so. I don’t claim that I always got it right. To the extent that I didn’t, it was clearly my own fault.”
While these words could be the musings of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) as he sees out his last hours in office this morning, they were actually written by another leader, former Czech president Vaclav Havel, days before the end of his presidency in 2003. Chen and Havel had a few things in common. Both were part of grassroots movements opposing repressive rule — Chen in the dangwai and Havel in Charter 77 — and as a result spent time in jail.
Beyond the formative experiences of imprisonment for political views, however, Chen and Havel will both be remembered as controversial figures who led their countries amid churning political forces.
Part of the controversy that surrounds them, or the hatred directed at them, was the complex nature of what they were trying to do, efforts that pulled at the very identity of the people they governed.
In Havel’s case, the task involved dealing with the past — how to treat the previous authoritarian rulers and cut ties with the Soviet Union — and the future, by creating a Czech identity while joining organizations such as the EU and NATO.
Chen also sought to whittle away at his nation’s repressive past and remove symbols and names that, in many ways, still shackled its people. Looking to the future, he sought to create a better-defined, independent space for Taiwan on the international stage by attempting to join organizations like the UN and the WHO, among other global bodies.
For Chen and Havel, these endeavors proved divisive, made them objects of ridicule and provoked general hostility, but they carried out their duties to the best of their abilities and conscience.
Havel could have been referring to Chen when he wrote that everything had to be done with taste and skill, for on too many occasions Chen failed at both — alienating even his own supporters — and his extemporary speeches tended to make things worse.
In his last few years in office, Chen was also haunted by allegations of corruption, which, true or not, injured his image and ability to do his job.
Despite all this, as the last hours of his presidency lapse, there are few with sound judgment who could stand up and accuse Chen of not having cared for his country. From jail time to a 1985 assassination attempt on his wife, Wu Shu-jen (吳淑珍), as a warning against continuing down his path, Chen never allowed fears for his safety or image to undermine his vision for a free and independent Taiwan.
There is no question that this goal was divisive and generated hostility, that it heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and that it made him the object of ridicule at home and abroad. But if we were to go back to the beginning and try to remember why Taiwanese accidentally put him in power in 2000, and then with a majority in 2004, we would see that he stuck to his bigger-picture mandate, often going it alone, perhaps quixotically, against a legislative and geopolitical environment that was stacked against him.
The balance of Chen’s achievements is hard to determine at this time; even in his party there are few who would be his cheerleader. However, with hardliners in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government about to discover that the romantic era of strongman politics is over and that Taiwanese can no longer be dictated to, the positive side of Chen’s legacy might yet become more apparent.