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Rigger Follows the Presidential Race Halfway Around the Globe

S. Rigger
Shelly Rigger, Brown Associate Professor of Political Science

Though America's presidential primaries are commanding the attention of most political scientists, one faculty member in Davidson's political science department is focused on a different presidential race halfway around the globe.

Shelley Rigger, Brown Associate Professor of Political Science, leaves campus March 15 for a first-hand look at the presidential election in Taiwan on March 18. Rigger is recognized as a leading scholar of Taiwan's domestic politics in the United States. She heads the American Political Science Association's Conference Group on Taiwan Studies, has published numerous articles about Taiwan in scholarly journals and books, and has made many presentations in the U.S. and in Taiwan, including the State Department and the Foreign Service Institute. Her decade-long study of the country led to her 1999 publication of the book, Politics in Taiwan: Voting for Democracy.

She is well-versed on the positions of the three top candidates on the island nation's relationship with mainland China. She understands the complex triangular nature of U.S./Taiwanese/Chinese relations, and how U.S. positions on issues such as normalization of trade with China, China's entry into the World Trade Organization, and the Congressional "Taiwan Security Enhancement Act" affect those relations. Beijing has recently intensified its pressure on Taipei, making the March election even more sensitive and important.

In addition to the "big picture," Rigger can express her intimate knowledge of Taiwanese politics in anecdotes about the accepted practice of vote buying in Taiwan, the importance to the election of recent legislation on garlic growing, and the amazing success of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Chen Shui-bian's line of logo clothing and merchandise.

She has even established a web site which offers the first comprehensive English-language overview of this main opposition party's platform, organization, and decision-making process. The site includes detailed discussions of the DPP's position on Taiwan independence, factionalism within the party, perceptions of the DPP among the Taiwanese electorate and generational turn-over.

Rigger says the race is currently too close to call between the DPP's Chen and the two other leading candidates-ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) candidate Lien Chan, and James Soong, who recently broke with the KMT to enter the race as an independent. Soong stands accused of misappropriating huge amounts of KMT money. Lien, the current vice president and hand-picked favorite of President Lee Teng-Hui, is also tinged with KMT scandal. Chen may profit from voters' disillusionment. His successful administration of Taipei City as its popular mayor from 1994-1998 also improves his chances of presidential election.

At Election
Shelly Rigger (r) joins Wang Zhenyao of the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs (l) during an interview of local officials in Jiangsu Province during August.

Soong was President Lee's right-hand man for many years, but fell from grace several years ago. The KMT kicked him out of the party recently because of his refusal to acknowledge Lien as the party's sole candidate. Both Soong and Lien have strong bases of support within the party, and will undoubtedly split the party vote.

Mainland China has made it clear that it can live with the election of either Lien or Soong, but is uncomfortable with Chen because of the DPP's party platform explicitly advocating independence. If Chen takes a lead in the polls, Rigger believes China may threaten the island again to makes its feelings clear.

Though these three men express different attitudes on the tricky issue of Taiwanese relations with China, Rigger says all offer the United States manageable outcomes. She also believes that the election opens opportunities for better relations between the mainland and Taiwan. Chinese leaders have personalized the problems in President Lee, whom they have called "cement head." With Lee's presidency over, the next president could make progress on issues such as direct shipping, direct air links, and Taiwan's participation in international organizations.

Rigger has been studying Taiwan since 1983. Her senior thesis on the topic of government policy toward Taiwan's aboriginal peoples won Princeton's Woodrow Wilson Senior Thesis Prize in 1984. Her Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard, "Machine Politics in the New Taiwan: Institutional Reform and Electoral Strategy in the Republic of China on Taiwan," was the result of a year's field research in Taiwan and included more than 100 interviews with journalists, politicians, local political organizers and activists. She currently holds a grant from a major foundation to study Taiwan's opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party.

Professor Rigger conducts her research in Mandarin, and also speaks some Taiwanese. She has taught at Davidson since 1993.

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