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Taiwan’s presidential campaign is moving toward the final stretch. It is being fought among three top contenders: Vice President Lien Chan of the Nationalist Party, Chen Shui-pien of the Democratic Progressive Party and James Soong, an independent. The second free, direct presidential election on March 18, now too close to call, will have a significant impact on the future of Taiwan’s democratization program and its relations with China and the United States.

The election is being fought over two issues: money politics and avoiding war with China. Soong, an ex-governor who is defying the Nationalist Party, and who is reportedly China’s choice, is being attacked by opponents for his potential “sellout” of Taiwan to China if elected. He has, thus, defined Taiwan and China as “both sovereign, independent, but not subordinated to each other” and their relation as “a quasi-international relation,” somewhere between Beijing and President Lee Teng-hui’s positions — the former claiming Taiwan is a renegade province and the latter insisting on an equal “special state-to-state relationship.”

Soong long led Lien and Chen in opinion polls. His standing plummeted, however, following last November’s disclosure that he allegedly transferred the equivalent of tens of millions in dollars to the personal accounts of his son, in-laws and associates, including more than $6 million to U.S. banks, possibly breaking tax and criminal laws. The scandal, with charges and counter charges flying about money politics and underworld ties, has damaged Soong, the Nationalist Party and Lien and helped Chen. This prompted Lien, a scholarly statesman, to launch a radical reform program in the new year to prohibit the running of businesses by political parties and to place of Nationalist Party assets (said to exceed $1.7 billion) in independent trusts.

Chen has needed to calm the voter’s fears that, because of his past advocacy of Taiwan independence, his victory would lead to a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Chen has switched to a more moderate middle-of-the road line, defining cross-strait ties as “a special state-to-state relationship,” but calling for closer ties, provided Taiwan’s independence and interests are safeguarded. If elected, Chen will visit China and permit direct shipping and mail traffic with China.

While the two policy issues are important, they are secondary compared with four other factors. The most important is the role of social/immigrant groups. Taiwan is a socially and politically complex society due to different waves of immigrants, history (Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945; Nationalist rule since 1945), diverse political experience (first authoritarian rule under the Nationalist Party, then democracy since 1988) and transition from an agricultural to a global-information economy.

While Lee has preached “a new Taiwanese theory” to forge harmony, animosity between the “old” Taiwanese (immigrants to Taiwan before 1945) and the “new” Taiwanese or “mainlanders” (immigrants after 1945, many of whom moved to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949) lingers, though much less among the young generation, because of the latter’s monopoly of power until the early 1990s. The “old” Taiwanese have three subgroups: the earliest settlers (from South Seas islands, about 2 percent of the population; the Hakkas (mostly from the Canton region, about 14 percent) and the Holo group (from Southern Fukien opposite Taiwan, 72 percent of the 22 million people). Mainlanders are about 13 percent of the population. Many split from the Nationalist Party to form the New Party in 1993 because of their resentment of Lee’s effort to share power with the “old” Taiwanese.

It’s taboo for candidates to openly talk about the social-group factor, but it is an open secret that voting on March 18 will be largely along group lines. Recent surveys indicate that large segments of the Holo group will vote for Chen, a Holo Taiwanese, and that the majority of the Hakkas will vote for Lien, with some voting for Soong. Most striking, the mainlanders group, which have many Nationalist Party and government officials, form Soong’s “absolute electoral base.” Equally striking, 97 percent of the New Party supporters, mostly mainlanders, are expected to support Soong rather than their own party candidate.

The second factor is geography. Soong’s power base is Taipei, the capital of 2.6 million people, where one-third are mainlanders. Chen’s stronghold is central and southern Taiwan, where the majority are Holo people. While Lien has no dominant geographic bases, he enjoys a 20 percent support throughout Taiwan.

The third factor is whether the Nationalist Party, which has suffered Soong’s rebellion and defections, can unify and mobilize resources to help Lien win.

Lee is a final, critical factor. A charismatic leader, his success in turning Taiwan into a democratic state and a prosperous market economy, and his effort to enhance Taiwan’s international status, has endeared him to millions of Taiwanese, including many DPP supporters. Lee genuinely believes that his legacies, Taiwan’s national security and the peace and stability of Japan, the U.S. and East Asia area at stake. His ability to appeal to the voters and to mobilize the fragmented Nationalist Party will spell victory or defeat for Lien.

With the election too close to call and one-third of the voters still undecided, no one can accurately predict the election outcome. But one may venture three predictions. First, the voters’ primary concern being the safety of their lives, properties, and their jobs, and the majority favoring maintaining the status quo to avoid war with China, with Lee’s assistance, Lien probably will win by a small margin. Second, Lien’s victory would mean the continuation into the foreseeable future of Lee’s democratization, national security and China policies. Chen’s victory would bring two big changes: first, the first ever assumption of power by an opposition party (DPP), but not a complete Nationalist loss if Chen forms a coalition government; second, Taiwan’s eventual (it may take decades), but not immediate, independence. Tension with China and some regional instability will rise, but war will not occur if China acts rationally.

Soong’s victory would lead to the return of, but not the monopoly of, the mainlanders to power a speeded-up unification of Taiwan with China and some domestic instability.

Regardless of who wins, no one, not China, which has stated its opposition to Chen, and not even the U.S., can ignore the legal and moral rights of the people of Taiwan, in particular those of the “old” Taiwanese, whose voices and rights have been too long ignored by the powers, to decide Taiwan’s future.

If the U.S. government is to remain faithful to its professed policy to support the democratically elected leader on March 18, it must also respect policies that enjoy the support of Lien, Chen, the DPP and the vast majority of the Taiwanese, including those that upset the U.S. and China. These include Lee’s policy of a “special state-to-state relationship” with China, which aims at protecting Taiwan’s equal sovereign status, dignity and national security, as well as his policy of winning Taiwan’s rightful international status.

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