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Taiwan’s Year of Electoral Tumult
electoral process is set to become even more tumultuous, with five candidates already
declared for president a year in advance of next March’s polls and corruption
charges swirling around both major political parties.
President Chen Shui-bian, who took office
in 2000 as a reform antidote to the scandal-plagued Kuomintang, faces charges
of his own and considerable pressure to shore up support for his ruling
Democratic Progressive Party. So far his
response has been more calls for Taiwanese independence from China.
On March 24, three of the four DPP candidates
held a televised debate, two days after Ma Ying-jeou of the opposition Kuomintang
party launched a national club to support his campaign. A two-way DPP-KMT
battle would be the simplest race, but any of the major candidates could decide
to run on his or her own, if rejected by their party, which would split votes.
Certainly, after half a century of KMT political
dominance ended with Chen’s election in 2000, Taiwan has taken to electoral
politics with a gratifying bang. Politics here increasingly resemble those in
the United States,
with an extended election campaign, an intrusive media and an emphasis on
personality over platforms. The ferocity of the political environment and an
aggressive media mean that all the candidates are vulnerable to exposure for
financial scandals or keeping a mistress.
The political debate has far overshadowed
concerns over Taiwan’s
economy, with export growth slowing to 7.6 percent annually for the first two
months of 2006, well below its September 2006 peak.
Economists predict GDP growth could slow to
below 4 percent this year. Taiwan’s GDP growth
in 2006 was driven mostly by exports, with domestic demand lacklustre, at best.
Concerns are growing about a hollowing out of industrial production as it moves
Intel's recent announcement to spend US$2.5 billion on a chip plant in Dalian made front-page news in Taiwan's
papers, with articles analysing the impact on Taiwanese semiconductor
producers, sparking unease about competition from factories in China.
Every night, cable channels run long discussion
programs that debate political issues with fire and energy in Mandarin,
Taiwanese, Hakka and aboriginal languages. Few countries in the world are so
politicized. Ask a taxi driver who he will vote for next March and you will
hear a 20-minute discourse.
Ma, until late last year the hands-down
favorite to become president, had to resign his post as chairman of the KMT after
he became one of many candidates on both sides of the aisle – including President
Chen’s wife – to be charged with misuse of a political slush fund. If found
guilty, he would be unable to stand. The prosecutor could bring similar charges
against other candidates.
Another unknown is Beijing, which is increasingly frustrated
with Chen and his promise to change the constitution. While no one expects
military action before the Beijing Olympics in August 2008, less drastic acts
of hostility are not out of the question.
The rivalry between Taiwan’s two
parties is increasingly bitter. The DPP wants to de-sinicize Taiwan and is changing the names of
national institutions to reflect this. It is removing statues of former
President Chiang Kai-shek, whom it regards as a dictator responsible for the
deaths of thousands of Taiwanese, and reassembling them in a park in Taoyuan,
southwest of Taipei.
For the Kuomintang, the economic miracle,
high education levels and the security of Taiwan since 1949 are inseparable
from Chiang and his legacy and removing the statues is to deny history and
insult those who revere him.
This bitterness translates into a deadlock
on many issues – the DPP controls the executive branch and the Kuomintang
controls Parliament. And after two terms in office, Chen cannot stand again.
Meanwhile, the leading figures of the DPP,
whom the media calls ‘the four big kings’, have all declared their candidacy.
They are Vice-President Annette Lu, Prime
Minister Su Tseng-chang, former Prime Minister Frank Hsieh and party chairman
Yu Shyi-kun. The latter three took part in Saturday’s debate, which Chen also
attended for the full three hours.
In the most controversial promise, Yu said
that, as president, he would not be bound by Chen’s ‘four noes’ pledge in 2000.
These were: as long as China
did not use force against Taiwan,
he would not declare independence, hold referenda on the nation’s statehood,
seek constitutional changes or change national symbols.
Such a move would raise tensions with Beijing to a new level and further antagonize relations
with Washington, Taiwan’s most important ally. Yu’s
promise provoked anger from the other side.
The Kuomintang promise a gradual
liberalization of trade and economic policy toward China. “If we do not do this, Taiwan will
become increasingly marginalized from the international order, which is a very
serious matter,” said Wang Jin-ping, the speaker of the legislature and Ma’s
likely opponent, on March 24.
For its part, the DPP denies it has blocked
investment to China, saying
that 70 percent of Taiwan’s
foreign direct investment last year went to the mainland.
“We do not want to lock all our investments
in China,” Su said in a
speech in Taipei
on March 22 to foreign investors. “It is necessary for national security
reasons to carry out proper risk management.
We must maintain Taiwan’s
leadership in key industries such as semi-conductors and absolutely must keep
sensitive technology in our grasp.”