The achievements and mistakes of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) during his eight years in office will, for most people, be equated with those of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government, though they cannot be compared so easily.
Chen left office when his popularity was probably at its lowest ebb. There was constant criticism from the pan-blue camp, the attacks of the “red shirt” crowds on his propriety and the impact of former first lady Wu Shu-jen (吳淑珍) being prosecuted over the “state affairs fund.”
But another important factor was the DPP’s defeat in elections for heads of local government and in the legislative elections.
Not only were there complaints from within the DPP over these losses, certain party members even endorsed the “red shirt” anti-corruption push and called on Chen to withdraw from the party.
Even so, over time, Chen will gain a certain degree of recognition and his reputation will be vindicated. He has made important contributions to both the pan-green camp and the nation.
During the eight years of DPP rule, almost all of the leading figures in the pan-green camp enjoyed the spotlight on the nation’s political stage. Whichever way you look at it, Chen was the best among them. If he hadn’t run for president for the DPP in 2000 and 2004, the pan-green camp wouldn’t have had a chance of winning. This was the biggest contribution Chen made to his party and to the pan-green camp, as well as being his greatest personal accomplishment.
Taiwanese democracy made great progress during Chen’s terms. After the transition of power, and even with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) refusing to return its stolen assets and a flawed legal system, Chen still managed to eke out a two-party political environment. In terms of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, Taiwan is ranked the best in Asia. The nationalization of the military also ensured the survival of democracy. In a way, the KMT’s subsequent election victories reflected the confidence that the Taiwanese public have in their political system.
There has also been a change in the way Taiwanese identify their nation and themselves. Seventy percent consider themselves “Taiwanese,” up from 30 percent in the past, and up to 80 percent have said that Taiwan is a sovereign state. The Chen administration held three referendums, including one on applying for UN membership under the name “Taiwan” and another rectifying the names of state-run enterprises. Neither passed, but the process deepened the consciousness and autonomy of Taiwan.
This is Chen’s greatest legacy, and acts as a firm foundation for the DPP to get back on its feet.
Of course, there were also failures during Chen’s terms in office. The KMT cooperated with the Chinese Communist Party in boycotting much of the legislative process, retained its stolen assets and enjoyed the support of people brainwashed by its half century in power, while the DPP failed to make much headway as a minority in the legislature.
Chen also seemed to lack confidence in his second term. He placed too much trust in members of the New Tide faction and compromised too readily with the pan-blue camp, thus failing to uphold the party’s mission and principles.
Still, when former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher left office, her popularity was at its lowest point. But recently a British historian ranked her as the best British prime minister. A recent British survey also had Thatcher topping the list, followed by Winston Churchill.