Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 1

The good news about the Taiwan Legislative Yuan elections last month, from the perspective of Beijing, Washington, and at least half of the Taiwan electorate, is that nothing will happen. Chen Shui-bian and his pan-green coalition remained a legislative minority, meaning a radical push ahead for more sovereignty – and the instabilities that might bring for cross-Strait relations – does not appear in the cards for now.

Beijing and Washington both breathed a sigh of relief with the election outcome, sensing success in their efforts to “keep Chen in the box” and slow his drive toward greater independence. However, from the perspective of Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), failure to win a majority in the Legislative Yuan is blamed on tactics rather than a rejection of their overall agenda. There were several key problems accounting for the DPP’s inability to gain a majority.

The Taiwanese legislative election system is complex, with multiple seats available for each district and multiple contenders vying for votes in each district. The DPP overestimated the number of seats they thought they could win and nominated too many candidates (129 candidates for 70 available district seats). As a result, votes and resources were spread too thinly, generating a net gain of only two seats. Additionally, voter turnout in the election was only 59%, much lower than the 80% turnout in the presidential election last year, reflecting voter fatigue and the DPP’s inability to mobilize all of its supporters, particularly moderates. In fact, Chen’s efforts to capture “deep green” voters that normally support the TSU resulted in some moderate voters casting their ballots for rival KMT candidates.

The DPP further failed to forecast and counter the KMT’s networks at local levels, where the KMT has strong patronage relationships. (The KMT also engaged in vote buying in southern districts which otherwise support the independence-leaning green camp.) Lastly, many DPP candidates were disappointed by the active campaigning undertaken by President Chen and Vice President Annette Lu in local districts, an approach which helped mobilize the party faithful, but which meant local candidates and their issues did not receive adequate attention. Several DPP candidates felt that they were unable to build their identities with local voters who were overwhelmed by Chen’s presence and emphasis on a national agenda.

Moreover, since the DPP’s most experienced legislators were considered shoe-ins, many ended up losing their seats, or nearly so, as the DPP voter base flocked to lesser-known and upstart politicians further down the candidate lists. The result not only kept the pan-green camp in a legislative minority, but its caucus is now composed of a greater number of first-time legislators.

Predictably, the pan-blue explanation for the DPP’s setback is not so sympathetic. They point to the Taiwan electorate’s unhappiness with Chen’s poor governance, the lackluster economy, and deteriorating relations with both Beijing and Washington under Chen’s watch. But regardless of how one explains the election outcome, the results will undoubtedly handicap Chen’s plans for his second term. To the degree that his agenda included even greater moves toward de jure separation from the mainland, including wholesale Constitutional revision and other steps consistent with “Taiwan identity”, such measures now appear considerably less likely, which is viewed by many as very good news.

The bad news, however – for political and economic reform in Taiwan and for the resumption of cross-Strait dialogue – is the same: nothing will happen. Unfortunately, legislative deadlock and continued animosity between the pan-greens and the pan-blues looks all the more entrenched, in spite of calls for moderation on both sides of the aisle. It appears that not only will much-needed Constitutional revision remain stalled, but even less controversial items on Taiwan’s legislative agenda will likewise stay mired in divisive partisan politics.

The constitution of the Republic of China, which was adopted in Nanjing in 1947, is badly in need of repair and outright revision to make it more consistent with modern-day realities in Taiwan. Many non-controversial items – such as streamlining the government structure from five branches to three, updating the Constitutional relationship between central and local authorities, reducing the legal voting age to 18, and eliminating articles ordaining a heavily state-regulated economy – should be seriously debated, with appropriate Constitutional reforms put in place. National consensus and legislation on Taiwan’s economic future – including reforming Taiwan’s financial sector, bolstering Taiwan’s services sector, and helping Taiwan compete in a globalized marketplace – is also badly needed.

But none of these reform measures seem likely. Even the legislative passage of the arms sale package proffered by the United States, with its much-needed defensive weaponry to help protect Taiwan from an increasingly capable Chinese military, is in jeopardy owing to partisan discord.

The resumption of cross-Strait dialogue is also unlikely to move ahead in the wake of the elections. President Chen has called for the governing and opposition parties in Taiwan to join together in forming a Commission on Cross-Straits Peace and Development to reach a domestic consensus on how best to achieve stability and prosperity in relations with the mainland. However, as laudable as this goal certainly is, the Commission could easily become a politicized mess given the current mistrust and divisiveness between the pan-green and pan-blue camps.

Moreover, Beijing shows no signs of relenting in its pressure on Chen. Rather than taking the election outcome as an opening to more moderate voices on Taiwan, Beijing’s response was to announce the forthcoming consideration of an anti-secession law now before the National People’s Congress. Beijing’s abiding distrust and ongoing vilification of President Chen have wrapped the mainland in a diplomatic straitjacket that it appears entirely unable to shake, while strengthening pro-separation sympathies in Taiwan.

Under the circumstances, Chen’s best political play in the next two years would be to push for economic growth: a welcome deliverable for the entire electorate which would ultimately benefit the incumbent DPP. A concerted economic development agenda could help defuse other potentially explosive issues, such as Constitutional reform, and energize cross-strait talks on various issues, such as the “three links.” More generally, a DPP move back toward the political center – including the appointment of pan-blue politicians to certain cabinet posts – might demonstrate a more moderate stance toward the mainland.

However, the DPP and KMT have little experience or interest in organizing coalition governments, and neither are well-known for outreach and the politics of compromise. An unfortunate, but more likely, scenario is one of “bad news”: more of the same partisan gridlock and little progress in the way of domestic reform and cross-Strait dialogue.

No news is good news?

That said, the next two years offer some hope for progress in terms of Taiwan’s domestic reforms and improved relations with the mainland. With no island-wide election for the next two years, Chen Shui-bian and Taiwan’s political elite can focus more on governing, rather than campaigning and politicking. But, by mid-2007 the political season heats up once again, with the Chinese 17th Communist Party Congress in the fall 2007, Taiwan’s next legislative elections in December 2007, and the Taiwan presidential elections in March 2008. Beijing’s focus on a successful summer Olympiad in 2008 will also sidetrack progress in cross-Strait relations.

The key parties have much work to do if they wish to take advantage of this window of opportunity. Chen and the DPP will need to make a sincere and concerted effort to rebuild relations with the pan-blue camp (and the pan-blue will need to return this sincerity in kind). Both must truly seek consensus on the big issues which divide Taiwan, and put forward an acceptable framework to assure Taiwan’s future stability and prosperity. The Beijing leadership will need to reassess its increasingly truculent course and apply its talents for pragmatism and flexibility to resolving differences across the Taiwan Strait. The United States should do even more to quietly urge Beijing in this direction, while also working to rebuild the badly-damaged trust between Washington and Taipei.

Each of these is a tall order, and getting convergence on all of them taller still. Looking ahead, while it appears that “nothing will happen”, that also means the underlying issues which divide Taiwan and the mainland are not likely to get much better either. If you want more of the same, then the next couple of years in US-Taiwan-China relations should be to your liking.