Violent Incident Mars Status-Quo-Affirming Taiwan Election

Taiwan held a special midterm election yesterday, selecting mayors for the island's five largest cities; these included a new city, "Sinbei," formed from several Taipei suburbs, which had previously had county-level status. A total of 314 city council members were selected at the same time.

The results basically affirmed the political status quo: an island divided almost exactly 50-50 between the "pan-blue" political parties, led by the Kuomintang (KMT), and the "pan-green" opposition, led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The centrality of the green-blue rivalry was reinforced by local TV coverage, which displayed the results of races using green and blue pie charts exactly reminiscent of the red and blue ones that Americans are accustomed to seeing on election nights.

Until the night of November 26th, this election had been perhaps the most peaceful and routine in Taiwan's history. Most previous elections had turned on the highly emotive and divisive issue of Taiwan's relationship with mainland China. However, this midterm election, which selected mayors for Taiwan's five largest cities, focused almost entirely on domestic bread-and-butter issues like quality of governance and infrastructure projects.

The Sean Lien shooting incident

Thus, it was highly upsetting to Taiwanese when, only hours before voting was set to begin, TV coverage was suddenly interrupted by news of an apparent assassination attempt against KMT official Sean Lien, the son of former KMT vice president Lien Chan. The incident took place in the city of Yonghe, near Taipei, just as Lien was mounting the podium to give a political speech in support of Sinbei municipal council candidate Chen Hung-yuan. A gunman rushed forward and shot Lien in the head.

Based on the most recent press reports, it appears that Lien was remarkably lucky: the bullet entered the left side of his face and exited through the right. Not only was Lien not killed or even brain damaged, but Taipei University Hospital doctors predicted that the politician, after recovering from surgery, would not even sustain noticeable cosmetic damage. Unfortunately, though, a bystander, Huang Yun-sheng, was killed in the incident.

Although Sean Lien has not been a prominent figure in Taiwan politics until recently, the same could not be said of his father, who served as premier of the ROC, vice president of the ROC, and chairman of the KMT for several years in addition to his failed presidential bid. Lien, whose detractors alleged that he became wealthy through corrupt "black gold" real estate deals, has been a pivotal figure in Taiwan's relationship with mainland China. When Lien visited the mainland in April 2005 to meet with CCP leaders, including Hu Jintao, and toured historic KMT sites such as the Sun Yat-sen mausoleum in Nanjing, this constituted the highest-level political contact between the KMT and CCP since Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong met in Chongqing in August 1945.

The shooting had a number of bizarre aspects, even by the standards of Taiwanese politics, which for many years featured physical brawls between members of opposing political parties on the floor of Taiwan's legislature. Perhaps the strangest was that the gunman, who was arrested at the scene and quickly identified as local gangster Lin "Horse Face" Cheng-wei, claimed that he had not even intended to shoot Lien. According to Lin, the actual target was another man, identified as municipal council candidate Chen Hung-yuan.

Interestingly, images of the two supposedly "confused" men were displayed side by side on Taiwan TV. In this writer's opinion, the resemblance between the two was so startlingly exact that the assassin's claim was reasonably credible. Arguing against the "mistaken identity" theory, though, was an assertion by William Hsu, Lien's assistant, that the shooter had shouted Lien's name as he approached him.

Almost immediately, conspiracy theories materialized regarding the shooting. The most common was a claim that the incident had been staged by the KMT to win sympathy votes that would cause the KMT to prevail in the close election. Another theory argued that the shooting was an attempt by mainland China to influence voters towards the KMT, which Beijing favors because it opposes Taiwan independence more strongly than the DPP.

Without question, the incident bore a strong resemblance to an earlier "assassination attempt" in Taiwan politics: namely, the attack on DPP presidential candidate Chen Hsui-bian (then the incumbent president) and his vice presidential candidate, Annette Lu, in March 2004. In that incident, Chen and Lu were wounded, but not seriously, by bullets fired at their Jeep as it traveled down the street in the southern city of Tainan. KMT activists later alleged that the shooting was staged to win sympathy for the DPP. DPP supporters argued, contrarily, that it was an attempt by the KMT or by mainland China to liquidate Chen, the DPP's most charismatic leader.

In 2004, Chen ultimately won re-election by a razor-thin margin: incredibly, his opponent, who initially refused to concede while alleging dirty tricks by Chen, was none other than Lien Chan, the father of the man shot on Friday. The temptation to "fill in the blanks" is enormous: could the Liens, father and son, have seen a staged incident in 2010 as legitimate payback for 2004? Arguing against this notion is my own observation that when Lien Chan spoke to the media on Friday and Saturday, he appeared genuinely deeply shaken -- if this was an act, it was a very good one. Of course -- although one is plunging deeply into grassy-knoll territory by pointing this out -- this does not exclude the theoretical possibility that the son arranged the incident on his own.

Others pointed the finger at mainland China, always a popular villain in Taiwan; it is common knowledge that the CCP favors the KMT over the DPP, which Beijing regards as treasonous "splittists." In this election, it was always considered likely that the KMT and DPP would each win two of the five mayoral races; the major question was which party would take the fifth race, earning a 3-2 advantage, and a symbolic edge in the 2012 presidential contest. Because of the closeness of the vote, it is quite conceivable that the Lien incident led to a 3-2 split in favor of the KMT rather than 3-2 for the DPP: the Taipei Times quoted several voters as saying that they voted KMT in order to make a statement against violence.