Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 11

On December 1, voters went to the polls in Taiwan to select a new legislature, county magistrates and five mayors. It was the first national election following the opposition Democratic Progressive Party’s upset victory in March 2000, which put Chen Shui-bian in the presidency and ended more than half a century of Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) rule. It was in essence a referendum on the new administration: one that could either help President Chen end the gridlock that had plagued his tenure in office, or force him to compromise with the opposition and relinquish some of his powers in the process. The winners and the losers tell the story of what the election means.

According to all of Taiwan’s large newspapers and other major media, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won, and won big. Before the election it held sixty-five seats; in the new legislature it will have eighty-seven. President Chen was thus a victor. Although he claimed that he was not a party president and gave up his party jobs to be a “president of the people” earlier, he campaigned for the DPP and called on voters to favor that party so that he could govern effectively. Chen’s charm and charisma, evident in his daily appearances on television throughout the campaign, helped immeasurably.

Commensurately, the Nationalist Party lost. Again almost everyone said so. The evidence was clear. The KMT had a majority going into voting day–110 seats in the 225 seat body (with eight vacancies). It had controlled the legislature since Taiwan was returned to China after World War II. Its numbers dropped to sixty-eight seats. KMT chairman Lien Chan was the biggest loser among Taiwan’s leading political figures. Speculation abounds both that he will be replaced as head of the party and that he will not run for the presidency in 2004. Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou looks more attractive now. The People’s First Party (PFP)–having been formed just over a year ago, after the March presidential election–won. James Soong, running as an independent with no party, very nearly won the presidential election at the time. He started the party. And it was the biggest victor of all in this election, more than doubling its seats in the legislature (from twenty to forty-six) and proving that it is a party to reckon with.

James Soong himself was also a winner. The party was in many respects his. He campaigned and, like Chen, showed his prowess and voter appeal. Perhaps even more than Chen, being a member of a minority ethnic group. Soong will clearly have a bigger say in postelection politics and has no doubt improved his chances for the next presidential contest.

The New Party (NP), a breakaway from the KMT founded in 1993, lost resoundingly. It did quite well in a couple past elections. But not in this one. Its legislative membership dropped from eight to one. Because the NP has had no big-gun national leader since it tried to become a “democratically run party” (which in large part explains its problems), the party itself may well fold. It is certainly unlikely to have any political influence in Taiwan for a while.

The Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU)–founded by a friend of former President Lee Teng-hui just four months before the election–was a winner. Lee was behind the creation of the party and campaigned hard for its candidates. For a neophyte party it did well in gaining thirteen seats. Yet it had boasted it would get thirty-five to forty-five. Lee, after all, had name recognition, political influence and control of campaign funds. Its win was thus qualified. Lee has proved that he has friends and supporters, and will probably remain influential in Taiwan politics for some time. But how big a factor he will be is uncertain.

Independent politicians lost. Taiwan usually had quite a few of them. There had been twenty in the previous legislature. Now there will be ten. Fewer independents may be a peculiarity of this election. The presence of more major parties took votes away from nonparty candidates. Yet this may be a permanent future of elections. It is difficult to say.

Observers divided the parties into two groups: the “green team” (DPP and TSU) and the “blue team” (KMT, PFP and NP). The greens represented President Chen and former President Lee Teng-hui (certainly after he was expelled from the KMT during the campaign). The blues were the opposition parties. The greens advocated Taiwan’s separation from China. The blues favored eventual reunification. The greens promoted Taiwan nationalism and were ethnic Taiwanese parties. The blues spoke of “greater China” and were multiethnic parties. The greens won, though this was due more to better leadership and the product of the strategies of the parties and the poor campaign conducted by the KMT than to a permanent shift in voter preferences.

Democracy, of course, belongs in the winner’s column. The election was fair. It was conducted in an orderly manner. It was probably one of Taiwan’s most honest elections. Taiwan, according to most scholars, is still in a process of consolidating democracy. The election’s results will make it easier for President Chen to govern and help end the political gridlock that has had a bad effect on Taiwan, including its economy.

Democracy, however, was also a casualty of sorts. The greens won in considerable measure by playing the “race card,” meaning they appealed to Taiwanese (Chinese who migrated to Taiwan years ago) to vote for them because of their ethnicity while implying that Mainland Chinese (recent immigrants) were not one of them.

China baiting and appeals to Taiwanese nationalism were seen in the campaign more than has been usual. This may strain cross strait relations. However, it may also be argued that China must now accept President Chen rather than ignoring him as it has been doing (though China’s booming economy and Taiwan’s severe recession would say otherwise). The campaign was also full of negative advertising.

The election was thus a mixed bag. What remains to be seen in terms of its impact is whether and how President Chen puts together a coalition government. The greens did not win a majority and Chen will have to make special efforts to get majority support for his agenda.

John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He was in Taiwan to observe the recent elections.