Taiwan’s Year of Electoral Tumult

Taiwan’s wild

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

to China.

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.”