Taiwan’s Kuomintang Return to Power

Taiwan’s presidential election, won convincingly by candidate Ma Ying-jeou and the Kuomintang, returns the party to dominance, enabling them to pass whatever legislation they wish, and leaves the Democratic Progressive Party in control of just seven of Taiwan’s 23 cities and counties, back to the position of weakness it had in the early 1990s.

A preference for pragmatism over ideology, a deeply unpopular President Chen Shui-bian and eight years of corruption, economic stagnation and deteriorating relations with China delivered the presidency to Ma with 58.45 percent of the popular vote against 41.55 per cent for Frank Hsieh of the DPP, with a turnout of 76.33 percent. Ma’s victory margin of 2.19 million votes exceeded the party’s best expectations.

Ma is regarded as Taiwan’s first American-style politician, a telegenic figure who campaigned on a platform of economic rejuvenation and cooperation rather than confrontation with China. Analysts’ concerns that violence in Tibet over the last fortnight would remind Taiwanese voters of Beijing’s periodic crackdowns on dissent turned out to be unfounded.

In fact, the margin of victory for Ma was even bigger than that for the Kuomintang in legislative elections in January, when the party won 51.2 percent of the vote and 81 percent of the 113 seats against 36.9 percent and 27 seats for the DPP.

The DPP even lost Tainan city, President Chen’s home town, and Kaohsiung city, where Hsieh was mayor for seven years. It held onto only five rural counties and one city in southern Taiwan, while the KMT won all the north, center and east in a swing to the KMT in every electoral district.

In particular, two referendums supporting Taiwan’s re-entry into the United Nations both failed because voters judged them a waste of effort and money. Passing them would do nothing to get Taiwan into the UN and only anger Washington, Tokyo and Beijing.

The referendum was the culmination of Chen’s presidency and an apt symbol of his failed foreign policy. “An exercise in futility that would not help Taiwan in any way,” said Shaw Yu-ming, a professor at China Culture University and former information minister in the KMT government.

If campaign platforms mean anything, Ma’s victory should deliver a market rally on Monday, given his call for what amounts to a “common market” with China and a faster schedule for direct flights between the mainland and Taipei. Ma has advocated tripling the number of tourists allowed in from China, from 1,000 day to 3,000, and direct flights that will save the 1.5 million Taiwanese living in China millions of dollars and hours of wasted time.

Whichever party won, ties to China were bound to increase. Taiwanese companies are already by far the biggest source of foreign direct investment into China, with investments estimated at as much as US$150 billion. In early March, in an effort to help Hseih’s candidacy, the outgoing government agreed to relax the ban on banking investments in the mainland. The government had also agreed to ease limits on FDI into China also.

The election victory represents the final return to primacy for the Kuomintang, which ruled the island ever since Chiang Kai-shek fled the mainland with his Nationalist troops in 1949, only to lose power as political reforms on the part of Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, were put into effect. The party today, however, is considerably different from the one that left power in the early 1990s. At that time, the Kuomintang dominated the island’s businesses and money politics were an electoral blight.

Ma was smart enough to “Taiwanize” the Kuomintang, picking a Taiwanese as his running mate and promoting other Taiwanese to senior posts. He has declined invitations to visit China, however, and is unlikely to do so as president unless there is an extraordinary change of policy in Beijing. His position on the Tiananmen crackdown and treatment of Chinese dissidents is the same as that of the DPP.

The challenge is to deliver on the economy and win the co-operation of the Chinese government. Now it is up to Beijing, which maintained a studied silence on the election so as not to jeopardize Ma’s chances, to decide how much to reward its favored candidate and the electoral outcome it sought.

“Eight years ago, we felt rich and wanted freedom and democracy,” said Wang Hsi-chun, a civil servant who voted for Ma. “But now we feel poor. The economy has been stagnating. The KMT has a better record in managing the economy and we must engage better with China.”

The win represents an enormous personal victory for Ma, who, unlike his opponent, is unable to address audiences fluently in Taiwanese. It gives him considerable power in the fight with other KMT factions and their demand for a piece of the new political cake.

Hsieh and his running mate Su Tseng-chang chose to ignore policy issues and go for the jugular, accusing Ma of not being a loyal Taiwanese and holding a U.S. green card, which he could use to escape at a time of crisis. Ma’s defense was that the green card, which he obtained as a student, was invalid and that he needed a visa to visit the U.S.

The outbreak of protests and the military crackdown in Tibet seemed a godsend to the DPP, which presented it as a rehearsal for what would happen to Taiwan in a united China. Hsieh joined protesting monks at candlelight vigils in Taipei and called for Tibetan independence. While Ma criticized the crackdown, he was constrained by the Republic of China Constitution that includes Tibet – and even Mongolia – as part of China. “The Tibetans should decide their own future,” was all he could say.

China seemed to have handed the DPP as big a present as the missile attacks of 1996, which gave Lee Teng-hui a landslide victory in the presidential election. But the vote proved that Hseih had picked the wrong tactic. The electorate was too angry with Chen and preferred the soft-spoken Ma and his detailed policy agenda.