Rejected by the common man, Taiwan’s leader sings his swan song
The Jan. 12 rout of the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan's legislative elections brings to an end the era of President Chen Shui-bian. Doubling as party chairman, his influence permeated all aspects of the race. To his credit, he quickly tendered his resignation as chairman once the disastrous results were clear. "It's the worst defeat the party suffered since its founding," said Chen.
Chen himself had advocated the electoral reform upon which the election was held in hope of creating a more stable two-party system with better-qualified candidates and a legislature that would function more smoothly. He got what he wanted: an election system based on 73 single-member district seats, 34 seats based on proportional representation, and six seats to provide for aboriginal representation. Each voter cast two ballots: one for the candidate and one for the party.
Previous elections were held on the basis of 29 multi-member districts to fill 225 seats. It was reasonably easy to get elected in such a system and only required getting 4 percent to 5 percent of the total of number of ballots cast. Even then, vote buying was not unheard of. Candidates were generally thought to be poorly qualified for legislative duties and often sounded sonorous, divisive campaign themes that often focused on Taiwan independence as a quick fix to enhance electability. Such tactics often reappeared on the floor of the legislature and periodically devolved into open brawls, which embarrassed Taiwan voters.
Chen should have seen the writing on the wall. For the first time in the 2005 local elections (for county magistrates, county councilmen and township governors), single-member districts were used in place of multi-member districts. The local level was a one-time political stronghold of the DPP where many party leaders (such as Vice President Annette Lu and former Premier Su Tseng-chang) launched their elected political careers. As a result of the change, plus salient charges of corruption, the Nationalist Party took control of 16 of the 23 counties and became the dominant local level political party.
With this new influence, the NP built a reputation of strong constituent service and erected an effective grassroots network to launch its successful get-out-the-vote effort on Jan. 12.
Considered to be one of the richest political parties in the world, NP's residual wealth was also helpful.
The formation of the new single-member districts favored the NP. Even under the multi-member district system, the NP candidate normally received the largest number of votes. Chen hoped to win 50 seats for the DPP. He only won 27 compared to the NP's 81. The Non-Partisan Solidarity Union won three seats, the People First Party and an independent won one seat each.
The DPP's system of selecting candidates undoubtedly cost the party seats. To be crowned a candidate required one to adhere to an unyielding, dogmatic position favoring Taiwan independence. Candidates who were ideologically pure got the nod despite having little chance of winning. For example, Hsiao Bi-khim was chairwoman of the legislature's Foreign Relations Committee and helped to create a positive international image for Taiwan by taking a more balanced view of Taiwanese independence. If she had run in Taipei City, District 2 (Shihlin-Datong), the DPP would likely have gained a seat; her would-be NP opponent, and ultimate winner, was considered quite weak.
Throughout his nearly eight years in office, Chen has been obsessed with crafting a new cultural and political identity for the people of Taiwan and bringing about dejure independence. He lost touch with the Taiwan man on the street who is generally far more interested in buoying up Taiwan's sagging economy, which last year had the lowest growth rate in a group of 20 Asian economies. The DPP lacked concrete proposals on re-energizing the economy and economic talent. Post-election analysis showed that the DPP lost influence with independent voters and young voters who had enthusiastically supported the party. Chen has further alarmed the electorate by impairing relations with America, upon whose security shield Taiwan ultimately depends, and risking further tension in relations with China. There is little wonder that the NP secured 53 percent of the vote, while the DPP only got 38.2 percent.
Does this all mean that NP presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou is a shoo-in in the March 22 presidential election? Perhaps. Ma has been cleared of corruption charges and despite the unreliability of Taiwan political opinion polls seems to be gathering momentum. On the other hand, voter turnout promises to be higher during the presidential election and to favor the DPP. Taiwan voters are said to want a division of power and would be uncomfortable with both the presidency and legislature under the control of one party. This is especially so in the case of the NP: Many still vividly recall the party's abuse of power during Taiwan's pre-democratic era.
The challenge for both Ma and his DPP opponent, former premier and Kaohsiung Mayor Frank Hsieh is to maneuver Taiwan back into its nebulous status quo which will allow it to concentrate on economic development, repair relations with America, ease internal worry about unification with China and alleviate China's concern about Taiwan seeking independence.
Bill Sharp teaches classes about the domestic and international politics of East Asia at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary for the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org