During the 1990s, the DPP consistently won around 33% of the national vote in legislative elections. In executive elections, it usually won more, but the DPP’s support hit a ceiling at around 40%. As a result, the KMT’s dominance was only seriously threatened if it was unable to remain unified. However, the KMT was often not unified during the 1990s.
LTH and the mainstream faction finally won their struggle with the non-mainstream faction after the 1992 legislative elections. Premier Hau Pei-tsun 郝柏村, the most important leader of the non-mainstream faction, was forced to step down in early 1993. Hau had controlled the military through most of the 1980s, and even CCK had not been able to force him to step aside after the normal term of duty. However, LTH persuaded Hau to relinquish control of the military by offering him control of the entire government as Premier in 1991. However, Hau only served for about a year and a half before the forced retirement of all the senior (ie: 1947 class) legislators deprived him of his power base. The non-mainstream, mainlander, authoritarian Hau simply did not have enough support among the new legislature, which was popularly elected and mostly native Taiwanese. Hau was replaced as Premier by LTH’s protégé, Lien Chan 連戰. From this point until the end of his presidency in 2000, LTH dominated the KMT.
In the summer of 1993, some of the younger members of the non-mainstream faction quit the KMT and formed a new party. This party was at first called the Chinese New Party 中國新黨, but this was later shortened simply to the New Party (新黨, NP). While LTH’s KMT emphasized the centrality of Taiwan (“the ROC on Taiwan”), the NP took a clear stance advocating unification, and more stridently, opposing any moves that might lead to independence. The NP despised LTH, even more than they disliked the DPP. The NP hit its peak popularity in 1995 and 1996 when it won about 15% in the Legislative Yuan and National Assembly elections. However, the NP became seen as the party of mainlanders, and this limited its growth. In fact, surveys showed that about half of its support came from mainlanders and about half of all mainlanders supported it (at its peak), but there simply were not enough mainlanders in the population for a mainlander party to thrive. The NP lost support during the late 1990s, and it was also wracked by intense internal struggles. By the 2000 presidential election, it had already been marginalized.
If the NP split some of the KMT’s support at the national level, local factions often prevented a unified KMT at the local level. The KMT’s local factions had always seen each other, not the DPP, as their main competition. If one local faction was not nominated for county executive, it might try to prevent the other from winning the seat by running its own candidate as an independent or simply by supporting the DPP. In the authoritarian era, this seldom prevented the KMT nominee from winning, but by the 1990s the DPP was strong enough that it was often able to win executive races in which the KMT was divided. This was especially prevalent in the 1997 county executive elections, when the DPP won more votes and more offices than the KMT for the first time.
There were important elections nearly every year during the 1990s, but a few stand out as most significant. In 1994, the position of Governor of Taiwan Province was directly elected for the first time. Taiwan Province included about 80% of all voters, everything except for Taipei City, Kaohsiung City, and a few tiny islands. Since the president was still indirectly elected and the legislative elections were heavily personal in nature, this was seen by many as the first direct election for a single national leader. James Soong 宋楚瑜, a mainlander who was serving as the appointed governor at the time, represented the KMT and beat the DPP nominee by a margin of 56-39%. During his tenure as governor, Soong visited every corner of Taiwan, cultivated a reputation as an extremely compassionate and competent politician, and developed a personal following that he and many others thought would propel him to the presidency.
The 1994 Taipei mayoral race was of similar significance. The appointed KMT incumbent, Huang Ta-chou 黃大洲, was a bumbling and uncharismatic politician spectacularly unsuited for electoral politics. He was destroyed in the campaign by two of the brightest young political stars in Taiwan. On the NP side, Chao Shao-kang 趙少康 had once been nicknamed the KMT’s golden child. Chao eventually won 30% of the vote to Huang’s embarrassing 25%. However, the winner was the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁 (CSB), the future president. As mayor, Chen transformed the city government, demanding better service from civil servants, improving Taipei’s awful traffic, attacking the underground sex and gambling industries, and holding massive street parties for young people. The DPP had successfully governed rural areas before, but many people saw Chen’s administration as the first proof that the DPP was capable of governing a sophisticated and complex urban area. Chen lost his re-election bid in 1998 when the KMT unified most of the anti-DPP vote for its candidate Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九. However, CSB only lost by 5% to a KMT superstar, and he actually won more votes in 1998 than in 1994. By the end of his term as mayor, he was clearly the most popular DPP politician.
LTH won re-election as president in 1996 in the first direct presidential elections. While I believe Taiwan could be considered a full democracy as early as 1992, the 1996 presidential election definitively removed all doubts as to Taiwan’s democratic status. The PRC tried to deny LTH an outright majority by warning Taiwanese voters not to make the wrong choice and by firing missiles into the waters near Taiwan. These crude warnings backfired and caused many Taiwanese voters to rally around LTH. He eventually won 54% of the vote, fending off challenges from an extremely weak DPP candidate and two fairly strong non-mainstream faction candidates.
During LTH’s tenure as president, he increasingly moved away from the KMT’s traditional positions on unification with China. This culminated with the 1998 declaration that Taiwan and China had a “special state-to-state relationship,” a formulation that infuriated the PRC.
From the perspective of electoral politics, one of the most important developments in the 1990s was the KMT’s increasing association with organized crime and money politics, which were labeled “black and gold politics” 黑金政治 by the media. The most spectacular example of the inability of the government to maintain law and order came in the summer of 1997, when the daughter of a popular actress was kidnapped and murdered while the country watched events unfold on TV. Subsequent investigations revealed spectacular police incompetence in their attempts to apprehend the gang. Massive demonstrations forced Premier Lien to resign. The leader of the gang remained on the lam until one week before the election, when he went into the South African embassy and took the ambassador’s family hostage. Once again, the country was glued to the TV as the police tried futilely to resolve the situation. Finally, Frank Hsieh went in to negotiate with the gangster, convinced him to surrender, and emerged triumphantly with the ambassador’s infant son. One week later, the DPP won a stunning victory in the county executive elections.
The 2000 presidential elections were an important watershed for Taiwan, as they marked the first transition of power. The election was a three-way race between the KMT’s candidate, VP Lien Chan, the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian, and the former governor, James Soong, who ran as an independent. Soong enjoyed large leads in the polls until the KMT accused him of stealing money in what became known as the Chung-hsing Bills Finance Scandal 興票案. In the final weeks before the election, the three candidates were neck and neck in the polls. However, in the actual vote, Lien finished far behind the other two, with only 23%. Chen won 39%, about 2.5% more than Soong. Soong’s supporters were livid, and they blamed LTH. Soong and LTH had had a falling out in 1997 and 1998, and by the election the two were openly enemies. Soong’s supporters suspected that, rather than see Soong win, LTH had secretly abandoned his protégé Lien and thrown his support to Chen. Angry demonstrators protested at KMT headquarters for a week, until LTH finally resigned as KMT chair. LTH waited until after Soong announced he would form a new party, precluding any chance of Soong taking over the KMT.
Soong’s new party was named the People First Party (親民黨, PFP). It took over the pro-unification section of the political spectrum. However, unlike the NP, the PFP was never so closely associated with Mainlanders. Many of its supporters were Mainlanders, but the PFP had a much broader base of support. Unlike the NP, it was able to win significant numbers of votes in all areas of Taiwan. The PFP won 19% of the vote in the 2001 legislative elections (to the KMT’s 29%), and for a while it looked as if the PFP might eclipse the KMT as the most powerful party on that side of the political spectrum.
On the other side of the spectrum, LTH eventually decided to form a new party as well. The Taiwan Solidarity Union (台灣團結聯盟，TSU) became the most aggressive voice for Taiwan nationalism. The TSU won about 8% of the vote in both the 2001 and 2004 legislative elections.
During Chen’s presidency, the parties allied into two camps. The blue camp included the KMT, PFP, NP, and most of the independents. The green camp included the DPP and TSU. While the balance of power in the legislature was fairly close, the blue camp always managed to maintain a slim majority. Most of the battles of the last decade have been fought along blue/green lines. With its legislative majority, the blue camp was able to block most of Chen’s initiatives. Indeed, Chen’s eight years were marked by gridlock. For the most part, Chen was only able to do things that did not require legislative assent. Divided government also meant that the green camp only made limited headway in its efforts to unravel the KMT’s penetration into the bureaucracy, judicial system, military, and state-owned enterprises. The DPP was also unable to force the KMT to relinquish its business empire. The KMT did formally liquidate some of its assets, but most of these went to trusted party members and continue to contribute to the KMT’s coffers.
The blue camp never considered Chen’s victory in 2000 as anything but a result of their own internal split. They eagerly awaited the 2004 election, when they would be able to right this wrong. After much maneuvering and difficult negotiation, Soong agreed to cooperate with Lien’s ticket as his VP candidate. The Lien-Soong ticket led the polls, usually by close to double digits, all the way up to the day before the election. Then came an incident that changed everything. On the final day of the campaign, Chen and VP Annette Lu were in a motorcade in Tainan City. From somewhere in the crowd, someone shot at the president’s vehicle. VP Lu was shot in the leg, and President Chen’s belly was grazed by a bullet. Chen was whisked off to a nearby hospital, though his life was never in danger. News of the assassination attempt hit the airwaves and shocked everyone. All sides agreed that the voting should go on as planned. The next day, voters voted and when the votes were tallied up, Chen had won by a mere 29,000 votes out of nearly 13 million votes casts, or 50.11% to 49.89%. Lien declared that the election had been stolen and demanded a recount. There was an exhaustive recount, with both sides battling over every invalid vote, but this confirmed Chen’s victory. However, the blue camp anger was really over the shooting incident, which they believed was faked. They believed that Chen had blatantly stolen the election, and chose to disregard the results of the official investigation. In fact, there are several aspects of the shooting that are likely to remain unclear because the shooter has never been definitively identified. The main suspect committed suicide before the investigation was completed. Because of this, attitudes toward the shooting have taken on something of a religious tone. Some people think the shooting was faked, and others believe it was real. Both sides feel they are obviously right, and there are no available facts to convince them otherwise. In the days after the election, blue camp supporters swarmed into the streets outside the presidential building and stayed there for about three months. Even after the protesters left, the anger did not fade. In their opinion, Chen had stolen power from them, and this justified any methods that they might use to seek retribution.
During Chen’s second term, he was repeatedly hit with accusations of corruption and there were enormous demonstrations calling for his resignation. The blue camp attempted to use its majority in the legislature to impeach him, but impeachment requires a two-thirds majority and the DPP was able to block this move. However, after his term ended, Chen was arrested and convicted on several charges of corruption. He has appealed, and the court decisions have not yet been finalized. As of this writing, Chen has been in jail for over two years.
Chen’s presidency began with a surprisingly conciliatory official stance toward China. In his Five No’s, he pledged not to take any steps that might incite China’s anger. China responded coolly, saying only that they would listen to his words and watch his actions. Chen did not win any plaudits from within the DPP for taking such a moderate line, and after two years with no positive responses from China, he decided it wasn’t worth it to continue to pay the price and receive no payoff. Over the next six years, he took more and more strident positions on Taiwan’s sovereignty. This was especially the case during his second term, when he rallied his core supporters around Taiwan nationalism in order to save his embattled presidency.
Fatigue and disgust with Chen’s presidency showed in the 2008 elections. The KMT roared back into power. They won the presidential elections in a 58-42% landslide, and they won a similar ratio of votes and over 75% of the seats in the legislative elections. Ma Ying-jeou’s first term as president has featured much warmer relations with China. Under his leadership, the KMT has decided to pretend the LTH and CSB eras never happened. Instead, their China policy is based on the 1992 Consensus, that there is one China and each side has its own interpretation 一個中國，各自表述. His signature achievement has been the signing of ECFA, an agreement for closer economic ties with the PRC.
Meanwhile, the DPP has revived its fortunes. At its nadir, some thought the DPP would die and a new opposition party would need to be created. After Chen left office, none of the prominent DPP politicians wanted to assume leadership of the party, so the DPP turned to a relatively new face, Tsai Ing-wen 蔡英文. Tsai is the first major DPP leader who was not involved in the Kaohsiung Incident in any way. Tsai carefully repaired the DPP’s reputation, taking a firm but less strident opposition stance to the KMT’s overtures with the PRC. Many observers thought that Tsai would be a transitory leader, but she has skillfully constructed a solid coalition of support within the party. After two relatively successful election campaigns in 2009 and 2010, Tsai won the DPP’s nomination to contest the presidency against Ma in 2012.