Taiwan elections might cause heaven to fall

It might seem a long time before Taiwan’s next national elections, but given the raucous nature of Taiwanese politics, nine months isn’t long at all. The scheming has already started.

The first move was the Central Election Commission’s decision, at the behest of the ruling Kuomintang, to merge the presidential and legislative elections. The Taiwanese previously have held their presidential and legislative elections on separate dates. Accordingly, the island's next president was originally scheduled to be chosen in March 2012, three months after lawmakers were to be chosen.

The Kuomintang government pushed for a merger of both polls, arguing that it could save state coffers US$17 million and reduce notorious bipartisan conflicts that occur during election campaigns. A recent survey showed that support for a combined election has grown to 55.7 percent.

However, political analysts say the merged polls create a clear disadvantage for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), since younger voters tend to favor the DPP. Moving the presidential election forward by more than two months means anyone who was born on or after January 14, 1992 now suddenly turns out not to be eligible, since Taiwanese have to be 20 years of age on or prior to the day before the election.

Younger voters tend to favor the DPP. If the party's candidate is DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ying-wen, the annulment of an estimated 50,000 votes could well tip the balance in favor of the KMT. In 2004, a mere 25,563 votes separated the DPP and KMT candidates.

The decision, however, doesn't fit smoothly with the ROC constitution, which stipulates that the newly elected legislature must convene on February 1. That means legislative elections must be held in January at the latest. As the Constitution provides that presidents-elect must wait until May 20 before taking office, four months will elapse before the new leader – should the DPP win – can take office.

What is perceived by the opposition as a hallmark example of KMT trickery is a much bigger worry to some other observers, who say they don’t put anything past the ruling party. Some of the scenarios reek of outright paranoia. But anything is possible in a political milieu where large numbers of people think the disgraced former President Chen Shui-bian, in an attempt to swing the 2004 election, faked an assassination attempt by having himself shot by an assailant using a low-powered bullet. He won by a mere 29,500 votes.

Equally large numbers of people believe that if President Ma Ying-jeou loses, the Kuomintang might use the long period between the election and the inauguration foment an incident that would bring in help from the mainland. At the moment, things don’t look good for Ma. Tsai leads him in the polls by 50.05 - 35.61 according to a new poll by Apple Daily. Two other DPP candidates have varying but lesser margins.

A seriously suspicious fringe in Taiwanese politics paints a doomsday scenario.

If Ma loses, argued political commentator Tien Nian-feng in an op-ed piece the Taipei Times, "the Chinese Communist Party could order agents here to stir up social unrest to give them a pretext for invasion." A four-month period is a window in which public opinion could swing and conflicts could easily flare up, he added, providing the pretext for an external power to invade.

"These could be Ma's last four months in power, and he might choose to use them to sign a peace treaty with China and invite the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into Taiwan," Tien wrote, speculating that the motive behind the combined elections could well be to set Taiwan up for a takeover like that in Tibet in 1959.

"Extreme caution is necessary; otherwise, the 23 million Taiwanese will suffer the consequences," he added.

That may indeed sound like paranoia. But some analysts Asia Sentinel approached for comment said the theory isn’t overly far-fetched. Peng Ming-min, a former DPP presidential adviser, said the basic spirit of fair play is a foreign concept to the KMT.

"When the DPP won the presidential election in 2000, the KMT lost the absolute power it had held for 55 years as a one-party dictatorship," he said." It tried to recall and impeach the new president, used its legislative majority to block legislation and organized the 'red shirt' protests, turning the political situation into a complete mess."

Peng alleged that in order to hang on to power, the KMT will resort to any measure, whether legal, illegal, peaceful or violent, with the aid of the judiciary and the media, which it controls. The KMT has long been reported to have connections with with organized crime.

"The KMT could also get help from the countless CCP spies who have long been in Taiwan and even the China's People's Liberation Army," Peng argued. "If this were to happen, the DPP would be unable to take power even if it did emerge victorious in the elections.

Gerrit van der Wees of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a Washington, DC-based organization that promotes independent statehood for Taiwan, agrees that such an extreme scenario is thinkable, saying the prospect of the KMT asking for China's intervention is a real concern to many Taiwanese.

"As is known, certain pro-China elements within the KMT, like [honorary KMT chairman] Lien Chan, will do everything to prevent the DPP from coming back to power, and they will use their influence to pressure the Ma government to take measures against the DPP President-elect and other DPP officials to prevent it from happening", van der Wees said, referring to estimates according to which the Chinese have several thousand 'sleeper' agents in Taiwan who would be part of the scheme to create social unrest, which would then be used as an excuse for a Chinese intervention.

As an example of the measures the KMT is planning to use to go after DPP politicians and possibly also the DPP president-elect, van der Wees cited a case earlier this month in which the government accused 17 former DPP government officials, including Su Tseng-chang, a possible DPP presidential candidate, of having failed to return 36,000 documents during the 2008 transition of power from the previous DPP administration to the KMT.

"On the surface it appears 'legal' but in reality it is a selective use of an obscure law that has not been applied for ages for political purposes," van der Wees said.

Chen Yaw-shyang, an assistant professor of public policy at National Taipei University, says that "after Lien Chan's son Sean Lien was injured in a shooting incident on the eve of last November's municipality elections, everything is possible in the next elections."

Asked about the prospect of a Chinese intervention, Chen replied: "China wants to play an important role in the coming elections, but I don't know yet how, with whose help, where and when."

Jerome Keating, a retired professor of National Taipei University and writer, doesn't see things quite as dramatic, and probably more sensibly. Creating social unrest to invite in the PLA "of course is the concern of some, and there are some die-hards in the KMT that would do such, but I think they are in a minority," he said. But, given historic precedent, he still sees some danger. Keating recalled incidents having taken place in 2004 when the KMT believed to be winning, but Chen Shui-bian won. The KMT staged a protest at the election commission offices in an attempt to prevent the official announcement on the election results.

"I have a picture of it in one of my books. When you look at the photo, it is like a coup attempt," he said.

About the only analyst interviewed by Asia Sentinel to take no stock in the talk on either KMT-created social unrest or a related Chinese intervention is Steve Tsang, professor at the University of Nottingham and writer of the authoritative If China Attacks Taiwan: Military Strategy, Politics and Economics.

"I do not believe 'heaven' will fall in if the DPP should win both sets of elections or the combined elections. The PRC government will not suddenly invade Taiwan just because the DPP returns to power, as it didn't when Chen Shui-bian won his two presidential elections" he said, arguing that China would only do so if a DPP administration should cross its red line.

Tsang then turns the tables on conspiracy theorists, indeed. To allege that the KMT would ignite social unrest to destabilize Taiwan if it should lose the elections is like advocating the hanging of someone because that person is capable of committing an offense, not because that person has a plan to do so, even less any prima facie evidence that he or she has committed any offense.

"Those who articulate such a view are just irresponsibly rumor mongering," Tsang said. "Taiwan's democracy is robust enough not to be threatened by such irresponsible rumor mongering but those doing this type of irresponsible rumor mongering are, to say the least, bad democrats."