It has been two years since the tumultuous climax to the last bitter presidential election in Taiwan—the infamous "March 19 incident," when a gunman fired shots at Chen and his vice presidential candidate, Annette Lu. To the DPP, the matter is over and done with—the case solved, the would-be assassin dead by his own hand. To the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, the affair still stands as a sham, a political stunt orchestrated by a desperate DPP to win the election (albeit a dangerous stunt—Chen was shot in the abdomen). Two years on, Taiwan's political landscape is still bathed in acid—and with two years left until Chen's term expires, there's scant prospect of this rancor easing. For a start, an $11 billion weapons deal with the U.S., designed to shore up Taiwan's defenses against China, remains bottled up in the legislature, hostage to opposition objections—not least to the hefty price tag.
Chen, meanwhile, creates "independence" controversies even where none would seem to exist: witness his high profile dismantling last month of the National Unification Council, which was created to explore Taiwan's eventual reunification with the mainland. Chen called the body and its governing guidelines, established in 1990, "absurd products of an absurd era." But the truth is that it was a dormant outfit that a fair number of Taiwanese hadn't even heard of until Chen closed it as a way of thumbing his nose at Beijing. Then, as if for emphasis, Taiwan's Defense Ministry last week proposed removing some run-down statues of Chiang Kai-shek, former KMT leader and ruler of Taiwan for three decades, from military bases across the country. Cue more opposition outrage.
The problem for Chen and the DPP is that voters like Lee are losing patience with the politics of provocation and confrontation. Taiwan has a myriad of economic ties to the mainland—the factories of scores of Taiwanese companies are located there. And in many ways, Taiwan—which Beijing regards as a renegade province—already functions as if it were truly independent; when Chen stokes the issue, it strikes many as both gratuitous and reckless, given Beijing's threats to strike with missiles if Taiwan moves to declare itself independent. According to a poll conducted last month by TVBS, a national television network, "boosting the economy" rated nine out of 10 in terms of importance, while "resolving the issue of unification and/or independence" scored just four out of 10. Public weariness with the wrangling over independence has had an effect: the DPP fared poorly in local elections last December, and a recent poll put Chen's approval rating at a dismal 15%.