Between 1996 and this year, Taiwanese voters elected three presidents in five direct presidential elections.
During the first direct presidential election in 1996, all the candidates acted like true gentlemen. This was of positive significance for the new electoral system. During the second election in 2000, the Chung Hsing Bills Finance case broke, and this affected the outcome. The night before the third election, in 2004, the March 19 assassination attempt on then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and his vice president took place. The shadow of these two incidents has haunted every candidate since.
During the fourth election in 2008, both candidates were on their guard against anything similar to the Chung Hsing Bills scandal and the March 19 shooting. Luckily, nothing similar happened. Instead, a new discourse was proposed: the idea that supporting the pan-blue camp meant supporting China, and that supporting China meant selling out Taiwan — an idea intended to secure a Taiwan-centered government monopoly. However, this anachronistic discourse was rejected by voters, just as the political discourse of the authoritarian Martial Law-era was discarded as a result of Taiwan’s democratic development and relegated to the dustbin of history.
During the fifth presidential election last month, the three candidates accused one another of playing dirty tricks, but the criticisms were mainly technical in nature.
After 16 years and five presidential elections, Taiwan’s democracy has become more mature. After eight years, the ghosts of the 319 shooting and the Chung Hsing Bills scandal have started to fade away. The new discourse aimed at creating a Taiwan-centered government monopoly from 2008, too, has gradually been abandoned. These changes are symbolic of the consolidation of democracy in Taiwan, and of a shared victory for all Taiwanese.
One thing that is worth mentioning in the recent presidential election is the “China factor.” In Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996, then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) threatened Taiwan with missile exercises. In the second election in 2000, then-Chinese premier Zhu Rongji (朱鎔基) issued verbal threats against Taiwan.
After Ma’s election in 2008, he pushed through the opening of the three direct cross-strait links and signed the cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).Sixteen other cross-strait agreements between the Straits Exchange Foundation and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait were also signed. This has resulted in the biggest change to cross-strait relations in 60 years.
In the final stage of the recent election campaign, the so-called “1992 consensus” became a hot, and maybe even critical, issue. This change gave the “China factor,” and especially the cross-strait economic factors, a new importance in Taiwan’s presidential elections.
In previous presidential elections, the US was always of greatest international significance, but in last month’s presidential election the China factor became at least as important. After 16 years of searching and learning, China’s leaders seem to have learned how to influence Taiwan’s presidential elections. From now on, they are likely to strengthen not only cross-strait economic ties, but also cultural and historical ties.