Taiwan Elections: Stability at the Expense of Democratization

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) stunning defeat in Taiwan’s parliamentary polls last weekend is expected to lower tension in the Taiwan Straits and speed up economic integration between the mainland and the self-ruled island. The DPP’s Waterloo may help convince President Chen Shui-bian and other pro-independence politicians in the “Green Party” to re-evaluate and perhaps tone down its tactic of provoking Beijing and capitalizing on the antagonism between Fujianese-speaking native Taiwanese (bensheng ren) and mainlanders (waisheng ren) that followed the Nationalist Government from China to Taiwan in 1949. The prospects of Ma Ying-Jeoh, the presidential candidate for the opposition Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party)—which favors eventual reunification with China—in the March 22 presidential polls have also risen. Cross-Straits development in the coming year or so, however, also depends on reactions from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. Moreover, the KMT’s total domination of the Legislative Yuan (parliament), which was due as much to the DPP’s falling popularity as to the introduction of a “Japanese-style” electoral system—could upset the delicate balance of power on the island and spell trouble for the future of Taiwanese democracy.

The KMT now controls 81 of the Legislative Yuan’s 113 seats, versus the DPP’s 27. Five seats are held by independents and politicians from smaller parties that are closely aligned with the KMT. This means that even if the DPP’s feisty candidate Frank Hsieh were to defeat Ma in March, the new president will lack parliamentary clout to push through laws that promote the DPP’s agenda for Taiwan. Moreover, the Nationalists now have more than the two-thirds majority needed to initiate motions to impeach the president—as well as the three-quarters majority required for revising Taiwan’s constitution. This probably means that the wind beneath the sails in the push for constitutional revisionism will be put on the back burner until, at least, the next LY elections. In addition, last Saturday, the Taiwanese people cast their ballots for two referendums relating to fighting corruption. Only 26 percent of the 10 million-odd voters bothered to pick up the plebiscite slips, far short of the 50 percent “threshold of participation” required for the passage of referendums. Many experts noted that given the Taiwanese’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for this particular referendum, together with the major setback for the DPP, the two referendums—on the island’s joining the United Nations under respectively the name of Taiwan or the antiquated Republic of China—are probably doomed to be held in conjunction with the March 22 Presidential elections (Liberty Times, January 13; United Daily News, January 13).

Beijing has adopted an uncharacteristically low profile in the run-up to and in the aftermath of the LY elections, which suggests that Beijing is treading very carefully on Taiwan’s sensitive political landmine. The cabinet-level Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) issued no statements and the polls received minimal coverage in Chinese media, while the TAO also cancelled a press briefing for unspecified reasons, which was originally scheduled on January 16 (China Times, January 16). The official Xinhua News Agency carried a brief dispatch on the Taiwan ruling party’s “landslide defeat” but refrained from its usual penchant for DPP bashing. The few Beijing-based Taiwan experts who have talked to the Hong Kong, Taiwan and foreign media have interpreted the election results as a defeat for the DPP’s “radical pro-independence line.”

“Taiwan voters have given Chen Shui-bian a vote of no confidence,” said Yu Keli, director of the Taiwan Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). “This election will have a positive impact on cross-Straits relations and will help to maintain stability” (Ming Pao, January 13; Xinhua, January 12). Yet Yu and other semi-official experts have stopped short of gloating. The CCP administration has apparently learned the lesson of how heavy-decibel condemnation of the DPP before major Taiwanese elections had the reverse affect of assisting the DPP in garnering more sympathy votes in the ballot box.

In any event, however, Beijing—and the United States for that matter—has reason to feel relieved after the parliamentary elections, which have confirmed the star power of the photogenic, Harvard-educated Ma. Post-election opinion surveys have Ma leading Hsieh, a Kyoto-educated lawyer, by some 30 percentage points. Both voters and experts have attributed the KMT’s ability to evenly split the ballots with the DPP in several “green” or pro-independence strongholds in southern Taiwan such as Kaohsiung and Kaohsiung County to Ma’s “saturation campaigning” in these areas the past month. “The ten-odd KMT candidates who won in traditionally green constituencies in central and southern Taiwan have done so thanks to Ma’s long ‘coattails’,” said Yang Tai-shun, a professor of political science at Taipei’s Chinese Culture University. He and other experts added that despite Hsieh’s reputation as a master electoral tactician, the veteran politician faces near-impossible odds in his battle against “superstar” Ma (China Times, January 14; Apple Daily, January 13).

Irrespective of Hsieh’s political fortunes, the DPP may in the foreseeable future have to move toward a less confrontational stance on cross-Straits issues so as to regain the confidence of moderate, middle-of-the-road Taiwanese voters. After all, Hsieh—and his faction within the DPP—is known for his relatively flexible approach to the mainland, at least in terms of business, cultural and people-to-people ties. A former mayor of Kaohsiung, Hsieh has reiterated his support for some form of direct flights between major cities in Taiwan and China. He is more enthusiastic than President Chen about allowing Taiwanese businesses to set up shop along the prosperous East China coast. Former legislator and political commentator Jaw Shau-kong noted that “it would not be surprising if Hsieh would before the presidential polls make conciliatory gestures such as announcing measures to attract more investment and tourists from the mainland” (CTN TV News, January 12). It was mainly due to this reason that the Taiwan stock market rose 2 percent on Monday, even in spite of more bearish news about the U.S. economy.

Much, however, depends on whether Beijing would continue to lie low in the coming months. According to Minister Chen Ming-tong, chairman of Taiwan’s cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), the CCP leadership has hardly changed its “two-fisted policy” of wooing the Taiwanese public as well as the business community on the one hand, and boosting the number of missiles that target Taiwan and squeezing the island’s diplomatic elbow room on the other. In an interview with foreign reporters just before the polls, Chen said Beijing had put unprecedented pressure on Washington to rein in the DPP administration in the belief that “the shortest path from Beijing to Taipei is via Washington.” The MAC chief also cited reports that China would use “dollar diplomacy” to persuade more countries that still recognize Taipei to switch allegiance to Beijing. Indeed the African state of Malawi announced on Monday that it was breaking its 42-year diplomatic relationship with Taiwan in favor of China, which offered the African nation an irresistible $6 billion aid package in the form of a mining deal. Two Taiwanese allies—Chad and Costa Rica—had also switched sides in the past 18 months (Associated Press, January 14; China Times, January 15). Fears by the DPP’s “deep green” supporters that Taiwan may lose its de facto independence under Beijing’s multi-pronged assaults could prod Hsieh or his successors to again brandish the “Chinese wolf card” in forthcoming electoral campaigns.

As for the Legislative Yuan elections’ impact on the long-term democratic development of Taiwan, political analysts have noted that the island’s free and open elections have enabled voters to vent their anger at the DPP, which is perceived as having become corrupt, inefficient and overbearing after a mere eight years in office. The wife and children of President Chen, for example, have the past few years been accused of taking huge bribes and using “insider information” to make profits on the stock market. Almost all major media in Taiwan, however, have expressed reservations about the “single-seat, dual-ballot” electoral mechanism first introduced last Saturday, which has made it easy for one party—in this case the KMT—to gain a lob-sided predominance over the parliament.

Under this “quasi-Japanese system,” Taiwan is divided into 79 relatively small single-seat constituencies, as opposed to the multiple-seat, large constituencies of the past. Apart from choosing the candidate in their district, voters cast a second ballot for political parties—and 34 seats will be distributed to the parties in direct proportion to their level of voter support. In the single-seat constituency section of the polls, the DPP won 38.17 percent of the votes, versus the KMT’s 53.50 percent. While compared to the contest four years ago, the KMT picked up 20 percent more ballots, the ruling party also gained nearly 3 percent. Owing to the “winner takes all” system, however, the DPP secured merely 13 seats this time, versus the KMT’s 61 seats. In the political party section of the polls, the DPP and KMT won respectively 14 and 20 seats. Practically all small parties were wiped out because they failed to make the threshold of five percent support. As political analyst Tsou Ching-wen put it, the new electoral norms “may result in Taiwan retrogressing to a political structure of one-party domination”—and the dearth of viable checks and balances (Apple Daily, January 13; United Daily News, January 13).

The day after the polls, Hsieh, who has temporarily taken over the DPP chairmanship from President Chen, vowed to fight on. “The KMT did not win the election because they are a particularly good party, but because the DPP had not done its job well,” he said. “We heard and thank the people for giving us a warning and a lesson; the stronger the wind ahead, the more I must move forward” (Taipei Times, January 14; Liberty Times, January 14). Hsieh and other DPP leaders warned voters that if the KMT were to take the presidency in March, Taiwanese politics could revert to the dark period before late KMT President Chiang Ching-kuo lifted the ban of the formation of opposition parties in 1987. Indeed, while Ma, a former minister of justice, is widely respected for his personal integrity and reformist credentials, his control over the KMT party machinery is considered tenuous. There are fears even among KMT supporters that last weekend’s victory was so deliriously sweet that the “100-year-old shop” may in the absence of effective scrutiny by a strong opposition go back to its old ways of cronyism, pork-barrel politics and even collusion with “black money.”