The shooting of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Central Committee member Sean Lien (連勝文) on the evening before Saturday’s special municipality elections has cast a shadow of political violence over the rivalry between the KMT-aligned pan-blue camp and the pan-green camp consisting of the Democratic Progressive Party and its allies. This attack comes just a few years after the shooting attack on then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) on March 19, 2004, the day before the presidential election. Leaders of both political camps would be ill advised to think of these as isolated incidents, because if the “bullet factor” becomes accepted as a feature of Taiwan’s political scene, then civic unrest, as a paradoxical result of the democratic path Taiwan has chosen, will surely make the country’s gradual economic recovery even more difficult.
Compared with many other emerging democracies, Taiwan’s political scene has been relatively free of violence. Many writers have described Taiwan as having undergone a “quiet revolution.” Although Taiwanese may sometimes be overzealous when it comes to politics, even when the “red shirt” movement calling for the ouster of Chen brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets, come late Sunday evening they made the pragmatic choice by dispersing and hurrying off to the nearest MRT station, because they had to go to work or look after their children the next day.
Since the late 1980s, the Taiwanese tendency to chase after the latest short-lived trend has been reflected in a lack of “structural” fervor in political behavior. This has enabled Taiwan to go through two fairly smooth transitions of central government power, in the course of which the country’s democracy has become more deeply rooted.
However, since Chen and Lu’s “two-bullet incident,” Taiwan’s democratic performance has been rather patchy, though there has been some progress with respect to consolidating the democratic system. For example, the judiciary has tried Chen for corruption and put him in jail.
Unfortunately, the news is not so good when it comes to democratic elections, which are an aspect of procedural justice. Before last weekend’s elections, many observers felt that the pan-blue and pan-green camps had adopted a new calm and rational approach in their rivalry for mayorships of the five municipalities, but the attempt on Lien’s life shocked the nation out of its complacency by once more bringing the bullet factor into play in an election. This development may change the textbook definition of Taiwanese political participation as being mostly pragmatic and shying away from bloody conflict.
If the shootings of Chen, Lu and Lien are taken to be political assassination attempts, then the actions of both assailants, the first of whom fired from among crowds of people while the second climbed onto a stage where everyone could see him, are very puzzling indeed. In both cases, one wonders what motive the attackers could have had for resorting to violence while disregarding the heavy price they were likely to pay.
Some historical precedents may shed light on the question. In the late 19th century, US president James Garfield was shot and mortally wounded not long after taking office. The assailant was a supporter who was disappointed at not being rewarded for his efforts with a post in the diplomatic service. Garfield’s assassin was arrested, sentenced and hanged. Three years ago, Benazir Bhutto, a member of Pakistan’s political elite, became the victim of political struggle and religious conflict when she was shot dead after a political rally. The assassin in that case then killed himself by setting off a suicide bomb.