Search Asia Times

Advanced Search

 
China

Taiwan: Pan-blues' winning ways
By Laurence Eyton

TAIPEI - Incompetent in campaigning, reputedly steeped in corruption and ideologically bankrupt - that's how the opposition "pan-blue alliance" appears in Taiwan's March 20 presidential election. So, based on this evidence, the re-election of the Democratic Progressive Party's Chen Shui-bian to the presidency should be a shoo-in, shouldn't it?

Actually, no. It is almost impossible to obtain reliable polling data in Taiwan, since everybody who conducts polls also has a partisan ax to grind. In fact, the consensus is that the two sides - the pan-blues, comprising the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) and the People First Party (PFP), a KMT splinter group, and the ruling pan-green alliance of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - are so close that the result is anybody's guess. Illegal bookmakers are giving the shortest odds for an opposition victory by a margin of about 500,000 votes - though even this might be an attempt to influence the election in favor of the bookies' preferred candidate. Nevertheless, nobody should be surprised at a DPP defeat being announced on the evening of March 20. And this raises a question: Why, in spite of the pan-blues' manifest drawbacks, might they still win?

The short answer is that Taiwan has a number of constituencies among which competence on the campaign trail, honesty in government, and vision simply do not count for much. It's worth remembering that the opposition, in its former guise as a unified KMT, ruled Taiwan for half a century after its flight from China in the wake of defeat by Mao Zedong's communists. During this time it successfully created a system of patron-client politics, which now results in its being able to rely on a surprisingly large number of "iron votes". Through the education system, it also imposed a system of ideological control on Taiwanese that a decade of democracy and four years of non-KMT government has done little to loosen. And of course, some of its policies simply appeal to the naked self-interest of useful voter groups.

Here's a rundown of just who is likely to vote for the pan-blues. Of the nearly 12 million votes up for grabs, if the pan-blues are going to win, they need to garner more than half the votes. So where are they going to get at least 6 million of these?

The ethnic vote
About 15 percent of Taiwan's population is made up of mainlanders - those who fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek and their descendants. This is a group that used to enjoy a monopoly on political power, but democratization has seen its relative importance erode, while the excesses committed by the Chiang government, most notoriously the February 28 massacres in 1947, and the thuggery of three decades of "White Terror" have been laid at this group's door by others in Taiwan.

The Taiwan independence movement, with which the DPP is closely associated, has used past grievances against mainlanders to forge a sense of Taiwanese identity, but this has allowed the pan-blues to play on the mainlander minority's sense of vulnerability and its fears of Taiwanese nationalism, presenting themselves as being the only possible safeguard of mainlander interests. In such an environment it is interesting to note that while mainlanders are usually in favor of unification with China, this does not mean they are partisans in any way of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Rather, they see Taiwan's membership to a "big China" as a way of protecting themselves given their own minority status in what they see as an increasingly chauvinistic Taiwan.

Less well known than the mainlander-Taiwanese split is the split among the Taiwanese themselves. The word "Taiwanese" in fact is rather misleading in its common application because at times it is used to mean "non-mainlander", while in other instances it refers to one of Taiwan's principal ethnic groups prior to 1945, when the island was freed from Japanese control.

The non-mainlanders of ethnic-Chinese origin are split between the Hokkien, or Hoklo-speaking immigrants, and the Hakka. The Hakka probably account for another 15 percent of Taiwan's population, and their relations with the Hoklo have always been fraught: communal fighting over land ownership was endemic between the two groups until the Japanese takeover of Taiwan in 1895. To this day the two communities remain wary of each other, and during its 50 years in power, the KMT operated a canny divide-and-rule policy in relation to the groups.

The Hakka have traditionally taken little interest in Taiwan independence. Therefore, it is no accident that a large number of non-mainlander KMT officials are of Hakka origin; in the 1960s and 1970s, when the party realized it needed new blood, it recruited among the Hakka, who were seen as more politically reliable because of their lacking interest in independence, a scenario that would leave them at the mercy of their Hoklo rivals. However, in its early years the DPP often appeared to be a party of chauvinistic Hoklo nationalism, so minority fears, such as those of the Hakka and the mainlanders, are not without foundation, nor are they manufactured by the pan-blues.

The result of both KMT policy and DPP shortsightedness is that those areas where Hakka predominate, especially Chungli and Miaoli counties, were until very recently solid pan-blue vote banks. While the DPP has tried in the past four years to woo the Hakka - setting up a cabinet-level Council of Hakka Affairs, sponsoring Hakka cultural festivals, allowing the Hakka language to be taught in schools, and starting Hakka TV broadcasting - how much this election-related effort has won over the clannish and skeptical Hakka communities remains to be seen.

And then there are the aborigines, Taiwan's principal pre-1945 non-Han ethnic group. And though there aren't many of them - they comprise about 2 percent of the population - they tend to be solid KMT voters. This is partly because they too are a minority fearful of Hoklo chauvinism, and their history gives them ample reason to be. It is also partly because the bitterly impoverished aboriginal communities are the kinds of places where KMT patron-client politics are most in their element. While the central government may have been in DPP hands over the last four years, the local governments of areas where many aboriginals reside, and the basic source of funding to community leader "patrons" have remained in the pan-blue camp, and clientism has been largely unaffected.

The pan-blues could expect to pull in 3.5 million votes from the ethnic vote alone.

The patron-client relationship vote
Through the KMT's extensive local organizations, the pan-blues have a lock hold on the rural community, especially in regard to farmers and fishermen. Most farmers and fisherman rely on credit for their local credit institutions, the boards of which are dominated by the pan-blues. This credit is often provided against inadequate collateral or even a lack of one at all - part of a network of favors, rewards and obligations operating at the village level. Much the same goes for the organizations the farmers use to get their produce to market and the immensely powerful irrigation organizations that, as their name suggests, supply water to agriculturalists. Basically, all farmers exist within a network of obligations dominated by the pan-blues, and because there are officially about 700,000 farming families, this suggests that the pan-blues could pull in well over a million firm farming votes.

It's also worth looking at those who work in state-owned industries, which in Taiwan have the problems of their peers the world over, namely inefficiency and overmanning. In Taiwan this is also complicated by the fact that workers in state-owned industries often count as civil servants under employment laws, and therefore cannot be dismissed under virtually any circumstances. Most workers see absolutely no advantage in having their agencies first corporatized, then privatized, subjecting them to the harshness of market forces and causing them to swap their "iron" rice bowl for a more fragile variety. The Taiwan power company, the railway administration and the state telecom company all have noisy anti-privatization unions with heavy pan-blue involvement. And while the DPP is committed to the privatization of as much of the state-owned sector as it can sell off, the pan-blues are far less enthusiastic about privatization and market forces. So could this add up to possible votes? Maybe half a million.

The business vote
Part of the pan-blue campaign strategy is to stress that if they win office, Taiwan will move ahead quickly on opening up direct transportation, commercial and communication links with China. Actually, the governing DPP wishes to open direct links as well; however, it simply will not pay the price that China wants before it comes to the bargaining table - an acknowledgment that there is only one China of which Taiwan is part.

How the pan-blues intend to avoid this situation is not quite clear; they merely claim that they have a better relationship with Beijing than the DPP because they are not opposed to unification with China. As a result, they tend to think that China might be more willing to relax its hitherto intransigent demands for them in a way that it would not do for the DPP.

Whether or not this is true, the pan-blues think of themselves as the natural choice of Taiwanese doing business in China, where they have been campaigning hard among the Taiwan business community. Many Taiwanese businessmen say President Chen Shui-bian is not actively protecting their mainland Chinese investments, and as a result, the business community largely is supporting the pan-blue opposition ticket in order to safeguard their mainland economic interests.

The pan-blues themselves say this could mean a million votes, and if so, it would be decisive. But this goal may be something of a pipe dream. Evidence from the last presidential election suggests that while there might have been 700,000 Taiwanese doing business in China at the time, only 20,000 or so bothered to return to the island to vote.

But putting those businessmen with interests in China aside, there is also a large group of domestic Taiwanese businessmen as well as ordinary people who believe that the pan-blues are better economic managers. One thing the KMT can point to is that, whatever its unpalatable record on human and political rights, it built the prosperous Taiwan of today, and as such, many people think the pan-blues understand how to bring about prosperity, whereas the DPP doesn't.

The youth vote
Given that the pan-blue candidates are a generation older than the DPP's President Chen, few have expected the pan-blues to be able to make inroads among this voting segment. After all, the 68-year-old Lien Chan of the KMT and his running mate, the PFP's James Soong, who is 62, have been active in Taiwan politics since the early 1980s, and both have been referred to as "yesterday's men". So what's their attraction? Well, of the 1.5 million people voting for the first time in this presidential election, at least half are males, and for them, a very real appeal comes through in the pan-blue offer to reduce the period of compulsory military service from the current 20 months a mere three.

Given that Taiwan's armed forces are largely conscript-based, this would mean a change so radical that it is hard to see how it might be implemented in a time period that gave any advantage to those now facing the draft. But the practicalities - perhaps one might say the likelihood - of the pan-blues keeping their election promise is anything but a deterrent to young Taiwanese males eager to get out of their widely loathed military obligations.

Another factor affecting young voters, especially those in college, is that their teachers, a disproportionate number of whom are mainlanders and many of whom entered the teaching profession in the days of martial law, when political reliability was at least as important as pedagogic skills, tell them they should vote for the pan-blues. And Taiwanese youths, being some of the world's least rebellious, tend to do what they are told.

The 'others' vote
Of course, these non-rebellious young voters could turn into non-rebellious old voters. The pan-blues benefit from an educational system that has been in place for in Taiwan for 50 years. The pan-blues have used this system to indoctrinate people with the idea that the KMT is the "natural" party of the government in Taiwan, and many people still believe this.

Others also include the unemployed. Unemployment currently is running at 4.7 percent of the workforce. That Taiwan's most severe recession in half a century coincided with the DPP's assumption of power in 2000 is largely a coincidence; the economic downturn was the consequence of the recession in the United States, not DPP incompetence. Nevertheless, the pan-blues have gained some mileage in persuading the unemployed, stating that the DPP hasn't done enough to support them while they are out of work and lacks the economic skill to get them back to work. The number of possible votes this sector could bring: just less than half a million.

Still others have simply had enough with DPP policy. There are those who are genuinely intimidated by China's threats and see the DPP's policies as exacerbating this, while others are fed up with gridlock between the pan-blue-controlled legislature and the government - the best way in which to end which, they think, is to return the pan-blues to the presidential office. Furthermore, some Hoklo are put off by the suggestion that Hoklo chauvinism is always lurking at the DPP's fringes. How many fall into these categories? It's anybody's guess.

Adding up the numbers
Put them all together and it appears that the pan-blues, for all their demerits, should have about 6 million votes in the bag. Though the likelihood that the pan-blue coalition may actually pull in all of these votes has yet to been seen, this analysis explains why the election will be closer than a simple blow-by-blow account of the campaign might suggest.

In the campaign itself, the DPP has scored all the points thus far. But campaign point-scoring might prove not nearly as important as the ability to identify and mobilize core constituencies for whom those much-talked-over campaign issues might actually be irrelevant.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)


Mar 3, 2004



Taiwan: About love and Sean Connery
(Feb 27, '04)

Taiwan business in China supports opposition
(Feb 4, '04)

More tangled tales of Taiwan politics
(Jan 30, '04)

Taiwan's pan-blues sing the blues (Jan 13, '04)

 


   
         
No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong