Taiwan’s Ancien Regime Poised to Return

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KMT chief Ma Ying-jeou

Driven by President Chen Shui-bian’s unpopularity, allegations of corruption in his family and associates, worsening cross-strait relations and the flight of capital and talent, Taiwan’s Kuomintang, driven from power eight years ago, are favorites to take a two-thirds majority in Parliament after the island’s electors choose a new legislature Saturday.

In an election regarded as a dress rehearsal for presidential elections in March, 16 million voters will choose 113 representatives for four-year terms downsizing the legislature to replace the 225 elected in December 2004.

Of those, 73 will be chosen from single-member districts and 34 from a single list by proportional representation. Six seats are reserved for aborigines. The 73 will be elected by a first-past-the-post system, which favors the two large parties, the currently ruling Democratic Progressive Party and the Kuomintang, and may wipe out the four smaller parties who hold 45 seats in the outgoing parliament. They need a minimum of five percent to obtain a seat.

The projected return to absolute legislative power represents an unexpected turnaround for the Kuomintang, which ruled Taiwan for 50 years after the Nationalist Chinese were kicked off the mainland in 1949. During that period, the party, first under the thumb of Chiang Kai-shek and then his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, effectively held a virtual political and economic monopoly on the island. The party’s business assets were estimated as high as US$10 billion. Following the 2000 election, however, when the party was torn by factional squabbling, it appeared headed for oblivion.

But in the intervening eight years, instead of slipping away, the KMT has reinvented itself, largely by skillfully filling the vacuum of relations with the mainland left by Chen’s sporadic attempts to forge something approximating independence. The party also began to reform itself, building links with other opposition parties.

As important as the current parliamentary elections is a referendum to be put on the March 22 ballot in tandem with the presidential election that would enable Taiwan to seek to join the United Nations under the name Taiwan. The referendum has been loudly condemned by the Chinese government and more quietly by the United States, which views it as an unneccessary provocation to Beijing. Chen has described the referendum as the practice of freedom of speech.

Certainly the current campaign campaign has been bitter and intense, especially in the 20 to 30 constituencies where the margin of victory is likely to be less than 2,000 votes, and in Taipei, whose city elects eight representatives and county elects 12. Figures released by the prosecutor’s office on January 8 showed 5,669 accusations of election-related bribery involving 10,312 people. The office said that by the time the election is over, the number is likely to be a record.

“The fiercer the competition for votes, the more serious is the vote-buying,” the prosecutor said.

KMT chief Ma Ying-jeou also has been told by a soothsayer that she saw bullets threatening him and his wife: she warned them to take more care of their security.

It is likely the KMT will do well in Taipei and cities in the north, while the DPP’s traditional strongholds are in the center and south. The fight is for the 30 percent undecided vote and to persuade supporters to go to the polls at a time when many people are weary of months of partisan politics and fist-fights in the legislature.

A win on Saturday would put Ma in a strong position to win the presidential election on March 22, against the DPP’s Frank Hsieh.

In the weeks leading up to the election, Chen has ratcheted up the political temperature by changing the name of the Chiang Kai-shek memorial in downtown Taipei and covering the giant statue of the ex-president with kites, paper fish and boats. On December 24, he closed Chiang’s spacious mausoleum in Taoyuan and removed its military guards, prompting members of Chiang’s family to say he should be buried in his hometown in Xikou, Zhejiang province.

Chen, who is also chairman of the DPP, has campaigned in all 73 constituencies, but his popularity has fallen to the extent that many DPP candidates do not welcome him to their constituencies, preferring instead to campaign with the party’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

Conversely, Ma is a popular figure, warmly welcomed by his candidates. His reputation was enhanced by the decision of the Taipei High Court on December 28 to clear him of misappropriating NT$11 million from a special allowance fund during his eight years as mayor of Taipei.

KMT candidates are campaigning on charges Chen and his family are corrupt, relations with China are bad and the island increasing marginalized from the global economy.

“The income of people is falling, the national debt is rising, prices are rising but not wages,” said Li Ching-an, the KMT candidate for the Da An district of Taipei. “The corruption and absolutism of the administration make the need for political reform and clean government urgent.”

“In 11 months last year, a record 40,800 companies in Taiwan closed, worse than during SARS and periods of economic slowdown,” said an editorial in the pro-KMT China Times on Wednesday (January 9). “By conservative estimates, 500,000 Taiwan businessmen live in the Yangtze delta. We are losing our talent and our spending power. One third of our companies earn more abroad than at home, but only 18 percent of the profits earned abroad come back to shareholders at home. We must follow Hong Kong and Singapore and become a high-quality service economy.”

Isolation is also a worry. “We have diplomatic relations with 24 countries, of whom 11 have a population of less than 300,000,” said Long Ying-tai, a well-known writer and head of Taipei’s cultural bureau from 1999-2002, noting the vast amounts Taiwan spends on its scarce allies. “How much of the money ends up in the private accounts of foreign leaders? Is there no alternative to cash diplomacy? To compete with the mainland in the international arena with weapons and money is the policy of a fool.”

For its part, the DPP lays the blame for Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation and worsening cross-straits relations on Beijing and its refusal to hold talks with Taipei except under the “one-China” condition. It says that the KMT would be an ally of Beijing, increase Taiwan’s dependence on China and accelerate the process of hollowing out.

“The KMT is likely to hand over Taiwan to China on a plate,” said Yu Shyi-kun, a former prime minister and head of the DPP campaign. “Beijing can rest easy because the KMT is against democracy and referenda and acts as Beijing’s pawn and mouthpiece in the legislature.”