Lee Teng-hui’s Last Hurrah

Lee Teng-hui is reviled in China as a traitor to the Chinese nation. His “crime” was to recognize that the myth of “one China” was increasingly anachronistic and to move political discourse in Taiwan towards the “two states” position that has characterized Taipei’s stance since the early-mid1990s.

In Taiwan, Lee is also reviled by some in the KMT, the party he led and represented as president. Many cannot forget or forgive what they see as his role in splitting the party ahead of the presidential election in 2000, which allowed Chen Shui-bian to win. Some say Lee’s personal enmity against James Soong led him to endorse a candidate who couldn’t win (Lien Chan), prompting the more promising Soong to stand as an independent. For a party that seems to find it hard to accept that is no longer the only party in town, the memories of this defeat are bitter; particularly as Lee subsequently shifted to the left, setting up a party that would ally itself with the DPP.

For many others though, Lee Teng-hui is revered as Taiwan’s ‘father of democracy’, the man who oversaw, and personally pushed through many moves towards liberalization and democratization. Although his post-2000 contribution to Taiwanese nationalism splits citizens along partisan lines, the gravitas he commands as Taiwan’s most influential living politician is unmatched by anyone else in Taiwan. And the sense of Lee’s grand status (he is nearly 90) has increased as his health has deteriorated.

Lee is currently recovering from cancer surgery, so it was a mild surprise, and strategic masterstroke, that he turned up at the DPP’s final campaign rally this evening. And boy, did he deliver.

Tsai Ing-wen is not the typical DPP firebrand who can rev up a crowd with affective appeals to Taiwanese identity. She is cool and smart, qualities that have served her extremely well as she has developed into a candidate of real presidential bearing as the campaign has progressed. After the constant ideological mobilization of the Chen Shui-bian era, Tsai’s rational approach has been spot on. But at this moment in time, the DPP campaign needed a shot of emotion, a reminder of everything that has gone on in Taiwan’s political history. Lee Teng-hui did exactly that, with a stirring speech that had the crowd enthralled. Standing next to him on stage, Tsai Ing-wen was visibly moved and holding back the tears. For DPP supporters this was the equivalent of an address from Muhammed Ali. The text is available here.

Here is Lee in his pomp, starring in campaign ads from 1996. Lee was non-elected incumbent president standing in the first direct election for the presidency. Enjoying a large lead from the outset, Lee’s campaign set out to show him as a statesman, cool under pressure and determined. These were highly salient characteristics as China attempted to effect the outcome of the election by firing missiles just off the coast of Taiwan. In these ads, the avuncular Lee, holds forth on courting his wife, quitting smoking and the meaning of freedom.

Mail me at jonathan.sullivan@nottingham.ac.uk, follow me on Twitter @jonlsullivan, or access my papers at http://jonlsullivan.com. I will live blogging from 6am GMT (2pm Taiwan) until the last results are in (yeah, could be a long day). I want to hear from people in Taiwan or armchair analysts anywhere else. Please send your impressions, thoughts, observations etc. to me via email or Twitter on Saturday.