Theme: The results of Taiwan’s parliamentary elections on 12 January and presidential elections scheduled for 22 March should have a significant impact on the island’s relations with China.
Summary: Tighter control over parliament by the Kuomintang (KMT) and Chen Shui–bian’s exit from the presidency augur an easing of tensions in the Taiwan Strait, in a year full of symbolism as the Olympic Games are held in Beijing. An improvement in relations between Taipei and Beijing will be especially noticeable if Ma Ying–jeou, the KMT candidate, becomes the new President of Taiwan.
Analysis: After eight years of government under Chen Shui–bian and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Taiwan has entered an electoral cycle which will end with the choice of his successor in the presidential elections on 22 March. Whether the winner is Ma Ying–jeou, the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate, or Frank Hsieh, the DPP candidate, relations with China can be expected to improve.
Parliamentary Elections on 12 January
Throughout both of Chen Shui–bian’s terms of office, parliament has been controlled by the KMT. This has prevented Chen from implementing most of his governmental programme. The parliamentary elections in January of this year and the presidential elections just two months later are an excellent opportunity to end this institutional deadlock. The polls will reveal whether the Taiwanese are satisfied with the DPP government and wish to penalise the KMT for hampering the government’s work, or whether they want to censure Chen’s legacy.
The overwhelming victory of the KMT in the parliamentary elections of 12 January suggests the latter. Of the 113 seats being contested, the KMT won 81, and another five went to its allies, while the DPP won 27. Of those 27, the DPP won just two in the island’s northern, central and eastern constituencies. Even in its heartland in the south, Chen Shui–bian’s party suffered major setbacks. For example, of the nine seats being contested in the county and city of Kaohsiung (the island’s second–largest city), the DPP won only three.
These results give the KMT control of more than two–thirds of Parliament, the proportion needed to launch a vote of no confidence against the President of the Republic, and close even to the three–quarters required to revise the country’s Constitution. The DPP has dropped from holding 40% of seats to less than a quarter. Against this backdrop, the DPP will be unable to block any draft legislation, oppose the constitutional reforms the KMT might propose or even appeal to the Constitutional Court to determine the constitutionality of the laws. Obviously, any attempt by the DPP to reform the Constitution so as to reassert Taiwan’s independence from China will have to wait, at least, until 2012. This places a potential source of tension in the Taiwan Strait on a back burner, even if Frank Hsieh, the DPP candidate, does become the country’s new President.
The electoral defeat, which Chen Shui–bian himself defined as ‘the most disastrous defeat since the establishment of the party’, was interpreted as a clear sign of the electorate’s discontent with a party which, after eight years in government, is perceived as corrupt and inefficient. Several senior members of the DPP and members of Chen Shui–bian’s family, including his wife, have been accused in recent years of embezzlement and accepting bribes, as well as insider trading on the stock market.
Furthermore, although the Taiwanese identity is increasingly prevalent among the island’s population (see Graph 1), its significance is diminishing. People, especially the young, are increasingly tired of the DPP’s attempts to monopolise the definition of Taiwanese identity. The disappointing results obtained by the DPP in the parliamentary elections of December 2004, where its campaign was based on promoting the Taiwanese identity, already pointed in that direction.
Graph 1. Taiwanese/Chinese identity of Taiwan’s inhabitants (June 1992–June 2006)
Source: Election Study Center, National Chengchi University.
Another factor has been the steadily increasing rejection of Chen’s provocative attitude to Beijing. When Chen Shui–bian’s initiatives triggered an angry response from Beijing, the resulting situation helped increase sympathy towards the DPP. Now that Beijing has decided to keep a low profile and that the Bush Administration has publicly questioned Chen’s reckless approach, this tactic is counterproductive for the DPP. After all, Taiwan depends largely on the US to guarantee its security and, consequently, a decline in relations with Washington is a cause for concern for the island’s people.
Who Will Win on 22 March?
Despite the comfortable victory of the KMT in the parliamentary elections and the ample margin the polls give to Ma Ying–jeou, with a lead of 10%–15%, it would not be the first time that a DPP candidate became President against all the odds. In fact, there are a series of factors which augur a closer race than might seem at first glance.
The KMT obtained a disproportionate number of seats in parliament (72%), considering the number of votes it won (52%). The main reason for this is that the KMT is the party that won the most votes in the smallest constituencies, which are over–represented. For its part, the DPP obtained, both in percentage and absolute terms, more votes than in any previous election (see Table 1). Furthermore, the percentage turnout in the latest parliamentary elections (56.6%) was the lowest since elections for the entire Parliament were first held in 1992. These figures indicate that the resounding success of the KMT is not due to a slump by the DPP, but to the KMT’s own enhanced capacity to mobilise its electorate and take advantage of the benefits of the new electoral system.
Table 1. Electoral support to the DPP in parliamentary elections
|Number of votes
|% of votes
Source: Central Electoral Commission.
The poor turnout among DPP voters is closely linked to its discontent with Chen Shui–bian, as evidenced by the fact that Frank Hsieh easily won the DPP’s primaries, being the least connected to the President of the four candidates who stood. The electoral debacle in January forced Chen out of the presidency of the DPP to make way for Frank Hsieh and made his right–hand–man, Lee Ying–yuan, Secretary General of the party. These changes are allowing Frank Hsieh to run the electoral campaign as he pleases, laying more emphasis on internal politics than on foreign relations and on public policy issues than on national identity. This strategy better responds to the electorate’s current demands than the one proposed by Chen, which will presumably translate into more support from voters for the DPP at the presidential elections than it received at the parliamentary polls.
As for Ma Ying–jeou, his incapacity to debate in Hoklo, commonly known as Taiwanese, will be a major handicap when it comes to attracting a broad spectrum of voters. Furthermore, although Ma is widely respected in Taiwan for his personal integrity and reformist credentials, his control over the KMT party machinery is weak. This, plus the almost total control which the KMT will have over parliament during the next four years, has generated obvious concern among many voters, including KMT voters. From this standpoint there are fears that, should Ma win, the notable concentration of power in the KMT could tempt the party back into its old habits, such as corruption. The KMT could also suffer as a result of rumours which assert that there are secret deals between Beijing and the KMT in regard to Taiwan’s political status in respect of China.
Lastly, if Beijing is strongly critical of the DPP or of Frank Hsieh, or there is any kind of interference in Taiwan’s presidential elections, this would boost support for the DPP in the polls. Chen Shui–bian is trying to force precisely this situation with moves such as the despatch of a combat aircraft to the Spratly Islands on 2 February.
Prospects for Relations in the Taiwan Strait
Both Ma and Hsieh defend moderate positions regarding relations with Beijing. This suggests a period of lower tensions in the Taiwan Strait in the wake of the March elections than under the Chen government. At all events, expectations are not the same if the Taiwanese President is the KMT’s candidate rather than the DPP’s.
If Ma Ying–jeou wins the elections, he is likely to implement a series of measures to defuse tensions with Beijing. These measures would be aimed at boosting direct links between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and would involve the establishment of regular flights and fewer restrictions on tourism, currency exchange and the direct transport of goods. The establishment of these links between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait is seen by the KMT as an opportunity to boost the Taiwanese economy, while in the DPP there is greater concern for the possible implications for the island’s security. Furthermore, Ma would be likely to accept talks with Beijing under the ‘One–China Principle’, provided both parties could freely interpret that principle. Likewise, a KMT government would put an end to the major arms orders to the US. However, Ma Ying–jeou would want China to relinquish the threat to use force on Taiwan or, at least, to stop pointing its short– and medium–range ballistic missiles (Dong Feng 11 and Dong Feng 15) at Taiwan. Ma would also expect China to accept a postponement of talks on the final status of Taiwan in respect of China for another 30 to 50 years and would hope Beijing would end up accepting a Chinese Confederation which would include Taiwan.
At all events, the election of Ma Ying–jeou does not automatically guarantee a substantial improvement in relations between Taipei and Beijing. First, Beijing must also show some flexibility in its policy on Taiwan with some of the measures set forth above and/or by allowing an enhancement of the island’s international status: reducing its diplomatic offensive in countries which maintain official relations with Taiwan, allowing Taiwan to enter the World Health Organisation as an observer, removing its veto on the high level involvement of Taiwan in APEC (Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation) and others. Secondly, China must avoid having unrealistic expectations regarding what the election of Ma would bring. There is a risk that Beijing might expect more of Ma Ying–jeou than he can actually deliver, since in electoral terms no President of Taiwan can afford to appear too accommodating to Beijing’s demands.
For his part, Frank Hsieh considers that China is too strong, that Taiwan’s economy is too linked to the continent and that US backing is not firm enough to make independence a realistic option. From this standpoint, Hsieh believes Taiwan should avoid tension and seek a dialogue with Beijing. Indeed, the DPP candidate is much more willing than Chen Shui–bian to foment personal meetings and economic exchanges on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, and he could even make a specific proposal in that respect during the election campaign. Some analysts speculate that he might even propose reducing restrictions on investment and tourism from the continent. As for Beijing’s attitude towards a possible Hsieh government, China does not entirely rule out contacts when and if the time comes. At all events, the chances of such a dialogue prospering would be quite limited, both because of the DPP’s positions and because of the scant flexibility which Beijing would muster when it came to negotiating with a party whose ultimate aim is the independence of Taiwan.
Evidence of the many pitfalls which a hypothetical dialogue between Beijing and a cabinet presided by Hsieh would have to overcome is the referendum scheduled in Taiwan at Chen Shui–bian’s initiative on the same day as the presidential elections. The referendum will ask whether Taiwan, whose official name is the Republic of China, should ask to become a member of the United Nations under the name of Taiwan. When he rose to the presidency of the DPP, Frank Hsieh decided to maintain the referendum, although it will not help enhance Taiwan’s international status, and in fact it has been strongly criticised by the international community. Regardless of the result, the referendum will have no practical effect since Taipei is far from having the minimum international support needed to join the United Nations under any name. There has been much criticism of the move from abroad. Condoleezza Rice called it an ‘unnecessary provocation’, since it does not increase Taipei’s chances of joining the United Nations and does fuel the tension in the Taiwan Strait, by proposing a name change which Beijing interprets as a step towards the island’s de jure independence. Having said that, it is worth noting that the referendum, which is being boycotted by the KMT, will not attain the minimum turnout necessary for it to be valid, namely 50% of registered votes.
Conclusions: During his eight years in office Chen has often used anti–Chinese nationalism for electoral purposes. Not only has this heightened the disagreement between Taipei and Beijing, but it has also undermined support for Taiwan in Washington. In addition to this international isolation of Taiwan, the island’s economy has lost part of its former drive. This means that the population of Taiwan now want a government that is less concerned with ideological issues and that focuses more on solving its day–to–day problems.
Against this backdrop, the two main parties are putting forward presidential candidates whose positions on national identity and the island’s relationship with continental China are moderate. Accordingly, the next government is likely to improve relations with Beijing, regardless of whether it is led by Ma or Hsieh.
If, as seems likely, the KMT wins the presidency, the chances of defusing the tension in the Taiwan Strait will be even greater. In this scenario, the main obstacle to improving relations between Beijing and Taipei would be the existence of unrealistically high expectations by either side, which failed to take into account the internal pressures to which the other side is subject.
Mario Esteban Rodríguez
Assistant Professor and Doctor of Oriental Asia Studies at Madrid’s Universidad Autónoma and Asia–Pacific Coordinator of Fundación Alternativas