Taiwan Does the Presidential Math


The DPP won just 27 of the 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan

Given the drubbing Taiwan’s ruling party received at the hands of the opposition Kuomintang in the Jan. 12 legislative elections, the prospects of the Democratic Progressive Party holding onto the presidency in March seem almost nil. And along with that dreary scenario for Frank Hsieh’s bid to keep the top job in the DPP’s hands, any lingering chance that Taiwan might declare itself independent of China seems out of the question.

In the biggest defeat in its history, the DPP won just 27 of the 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan, with just under 37 percent of the popular vote. With a two-thirds majority, the KMT has the power to impeach the president and revise the constitution.

For Hsieh, the even worse news is that the result was less a show of support for the KMT than a vote against President Chen Shui-bian and his eight years in power, especially his continuing tilt at Beijing’s windmills and his divisive politics at home, playing the native Taiwanese against those who came in 1949 and their descendants.

Chen remains in power until the vote on March 22 and the best hope for Hsieh would be if the president runs both silent and deep for the next two months, allowing the candidate to run the campaign and design a strategy to try and make up the lost ground for the DPP. That is another forlorn hope. While Chen looked contrite in announcing his resignation as DPP chairman following the poll debacle, he remained his combative self while on a tour of Central America and the Caribbean, saying the defeat was due to disunity in the party and not his policies.

Like a gambler betting his last chips before he leaves the casino, Chen is also likely to announce more measures to move Taiwan toward formal independence before he leaves office, a prospect that hurts Hsieh even more.

Hsieh’s only outside chance would be to distance himself from Chen and present himself as a safe pair of hands who wouldn’t provoke Beijing while guarding Taiwan’s identity and economic independence better than the KMT in its new role as the mainland’s best buddy.

“The DPP must renew itself to win the trust of the people,” Hsieh said after the vote. “To preserve the development of democracy in Taiwan, it is bad to have a dominant party. This will be our last chance.”

Sheng Chi-ren, a professor of politics at Dong Wu University, said that the vote was a simple rejection of the DPP. “In the joy of victory, the KMT must not get carried away but remain calm and composed. Otherwise, there might be a pendulum effect.”

If they are unwilling to give one party dominance, voters might conceivably choose a DPP president to counterbalance the power of the KMT in the legislature, although that remains a long shot.

The KMT has apparently heard the message. In a post-election news conference, KMT leaders appeared with sober expressions and said that they would rejoice for just one evening.

Setting out his manifesto a few days later in a major speech on Jan. 15, KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou said that he would respect the opposition, welcome the supervision of the media and reverse Chen’s policy of social divisiveness.

“We will be relaxed in politics and put our priority on reviving the economy,” Ma said.

His mainland policy, he said, will be no unification, no independence and no armed conflict, which is exactly what about 70 percent of Taiwanese have said they want in repeated polls. Ma also said that he would sign an economic pact and a peace treaty with Beijing and ask it for more space in the international arena for Taiwan.

In the meantime, the island grows increasingly isolated diplomatically. On January 14, Malawi became the ninth country during Chen’s term in office to cut ties with Taiwan, after 42 years, leaving 24 countries that recognize it, against 170 for China.

Regarding Chen as a traitor with whom it will not negotiate, Beijing backs Ma for president and, to help him, has maintained a diplomatic silence during the campaign. But it will not easily give the KMT everything it wants.

It will agree to air, shipping and postal links, as long as mainland carriers have equal rights to those from Taiwan and Chinese companies, banks and individuals also have better access to the island. But larger issues, like a peace treaty, remain conditional on Ma accepting the ‘one-China’ formula, a move which he is unlikely to make.

The biggest legacy of the Chen presidency will be an increasing acceptance of a separate Taiwan identity. While Ma leads a party that once tentatively unified China during the decades of civil war and Japanese occupation before it was driven from the mainland by the communists, he cannot deviate far from the Taiwan consensus that Chen will leave behind. The KMT, once an iron-fisted authoritarian party, now has to play by democratic rules.

One constituency delighted at the KMY triumph was big business, especially those who have invested in China. According to mainland figures, Taiwan firms have invested US$45 billion in 74,000 ventures in China. Unofficial estimates put the figure at more than double that, with much of the money routed via Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands, making Taiwan the mainland’s largest foreign investor.

Major Taiwan firms have long called for relaxation of controls on investment in the mainland, such as the ceiling of putting just 40 per cent of their assets into China. Of the 1 million-odd Taiwanese who live in the mainland, the vast majority of those who will come home to vote on March 22 are likely to choose Ma.

The business lobby argues that Taiwan can do nothing to stop the economic rise of China and must, like Hong Kong, position itself as a niche player to benefit from that ascension. Taiwan cannot fully determine its own fate, they argue, and must accept reality.

Across the strait, meanwhile, there was also another reaction. Some greeted the result with joy, not because the voters made the ‘correct’ decision, but because it showed a strong, vibrant Chinese democracy that could reject a ruling party in a peaceful election, an option not open to voters in any other Chinese polity.

“Taiwan today is the mainland’s tomorrow,” wrote one blogger. “God bless the Chinese nation, our blessing is Taiwan.”

Another said: “the KMT lifted the ban on political parties and the media, lost power and then came back through the ballot box. Can the Communist Party?”