Shifting Political Currents in Taiwan

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The Kuomintang’s blowout victory in legislative elections foreshadows significant transformation of Taiwan politics.  But KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou has wisely cautioned against overconfidence in the March election, as the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party seeks to reshape its message-and image-  under DPP presidential contender and new chairman, Frank Hsieh.

Alan D. Romberg – The Kuomintang’s (KMT) crushing defeat of President Chen Shui-bian’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party in the January 12 Legislative Yuan (LY) elections (effectively controlling 86 of 113 seats) greatly exceeded the expectations of almost all observers, even leading some people to wonder if the DPP can survive. That is cause for concern for a democracy whose health depends on lively competition between two largely centrist parties.

More immediately, however, attention is focused on the implications of the LY vote for the presidential election on March 22. KMT standard-bearer Ma Ying-jeou and his running mate previously enjoyed a 15-20 point lead in most polls (perhaps more realistically 10-15 percent when discounting for polling bias). Immediately after the LY vote, that lead rose to over 30 points in one poll and over 40 in another. These kinds of numbers won’t be sustained, but they point to the problem the DPP will have in seeking to persuade voters not to “bandwagon” with the LY winners, giving the KMT total control, but rather to “balance” governmental power by handing the presidency to the DPP.

Already deeply frustrated with President Chen Shui-bian’s dominance of the campaign up to this point, DPP presidential hopeful Frank Hsieh Chang-ting has quickly seized control of the party, essentially telling people that if they don’t like his approach they should take their support elsewhere. He has accepted the chairmanship, and his right-hand man, Lee Ying-yuan, is the new party secretary-general, ensuring that day-to-day matters are handled to Hsieh’s liking.

Although still claiming to be the far better protector of Taiwan identity and interests while also reaching out to the Mainland in a variety of pragmatic ways–advocating increased charter flights, Mainland tourism in Taiwan, and freer Taiwan investment across the Strait, Hsieh will seek to shed the party’s radical image and move toward the center. Still, he will maintain his support for the DPP’s referendum on the March ballot to join the UN “in the name of ‘Taiwan’.” While shunning every other sovereignty-related issue in the campaign, on this one question he has had to go along with the party position, and he cannot drop it now. Despite Hsieh’s essentially moderate approach, that presents a predicament, as it is this referendum, with its reference to “Taiwan,” that has been most problematic in recent months, causing cool Washington-Taipei ties and generating restrained but unmistakable threats from Beijing about resort to force if things go too far.

That said, the experience in the LY election –with the two referenda on the January 12 ballot reaching only half of the minimum legal requirement of 50% participation by all eligible Taiwan voters to be valid—suggests that the problematic UN referendum will not pass that bar, either. As they did this time with great effect, the KMT may well call for a boycott of the referenda in March.

“Taiwan identity” has become an important issue on the island, and while no political aspirant can afford to ignore it, as noted the DPP particularly counts on it to generate support. But voters seem to have other things on their minds, as well, including the economy and social welfare, education and health care. It is true that the overwhelming KMT victory was due to a number of factors, including the structure of the newly organized LY districts and new voting rules. But the runaway character of the KMT victory is widely seen as a referendum on the performance of President Chen Shui-bian and the DPP government, with the voters rendering a harsh judgment. Thus, although Frank Hsieh is known as a particularly good campaigner, and nothing should be assumed about the outcome on March 22, one cannot overstate the challenge he faces in digging out of hole in which the DPP currently sits.

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