'post-election stress syndrome'
TAIPEI - After Taiwan's
presidential election in March, doctors noticed an
unusual 10% increase in the number of patients diagnosed
with depression or anxiety. And traumatized voters again
will go to the polls on December 11 to choose an
entirely new legislature. The stakes are high: the
viability of government, the survival of political
parties and relations with China.
in anxiety or depression was noted at the end of a March
presidential campaign of unparalleled bitterness - for
Taiwan, at least - culminating in an assassination
attempt on the president, the victory of the ruling
party by just 30,000 votes out of 13 million cast, and
then days of demonstrations, boiling over into riots
when the losing camp refused to concede defeat.
The doctors named the malaise "post-election
stress syndrome" and concluded that sufferers were in
the grip of an "adjustment disorder" ie, mental distress
caused by a disruption in one's view of reality.
The source of this disruption for the defeated
opposition "pan-blue alliance" of the Kuomintang (KMT)
and the People First Party (PFP) was obvious enough.
Having controlled Taiwan for 50 years, and having only
lost the presidential election in 2000 because of
internal rivalry, which led to a split ticket, the
reunited standard bearers of the Chinese Nationalist
cause simply could not believe that it was possible for
them to lose power. Their entire strategy both
domestically and in their relationship with China, had
been based on the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)
government of President Chen Shui-bian being a one-hit
wonder, a four-year interregnum, before the pan-blues
(so named after the color of the KMT emblem) reasserted
control over what they had come to see as their
birthright. Fed by conspiracy theories about how the
election was stolen, they entered a realm of denial from
which they have yet to emerge.
supporters, life was almost as traumatic. Having
achieved a victory in the face of odds that a few months
before had looked insurmountable, the DPP then seemed to
risk having that victory taken away as a result of an
insurrection led by pan-blues who simply had no respect
for a democratic process in which they might lose.
While the initial chaos and instability
following the election receded - partly as a result of
United States pressure on the pan-blues to take their
complaints off the streets and into the courts - there
has remained an air of unfinished business.
pan-blue challenge contesting the election is still in
the courts. There are in fact two cases, one declaring
the election mismanaged and one declaring it unfair.
Judgment on the mismanagement case was handed down by
the High Court on November 4 - in effect the case was
laughed out of court. An appeal, however, was filed last
weekend, while judgment in the second case - which,
given the extraordinary thinness of the pan-blues'
evidence, is not expected to be any different from its
November 4 counterpart - is expected on December 30.
But it is not to the court cases, widely seen as
doomed, that people look to for a denouement or closure
of the events of March, but rather to the legislative
elections that take place on Saturday, December 11. If
Chen's DPP, along with its small ally, the Taiwan
Solidarity Union, known collectively as the pan-greens
(for the color of their emblem), secure a majority of
the total 225 seats in the Legislative Yuan up for
grabs, this will confirm the March result and do much to
put an end to the rancor.
But since the new
legislature will sit from February 2005 to January 2008,
while Chen's presidential term runs out in May 2008, if
the pan-greens fail to win a majority, Chen's government
is a lame duck. For the past three years while the DPP
has been the largest party, the pan-blues have
maintained a razor-thin legislative majority, which they
have used to frustrate the DPP at every possible
opportunity. Three more years of this will make nonsense
out of Chen's second term as president, while the DPP
faces a presidential election in 2008 without any
candidate of star quality.
But the election is
seen as make-or-break for both sides; if the DPP dreads
political impotence, the pan-blues dread something very
like total destruction.
The pan-blues' political
power is based on two strengths. The first is simply the
KMT's wealth. But much of this wealth was acquired by
highly dubious means. During the 40 years of one-party
KMT rule, there was "confusion" about state and party
property, which almost invariably worked to the party's
benefit. One recent government investigation has found
over 400 parcels of land and property illegally
transferred out of government hands into those of the
KMT, and the government is determined to get these
Should the governing pan-greens win
a majority of legislative seats, one of their first acts
will be to pass a law mandating an inquiry into the
KMT's assets and the confiscation of any that were
improperly acquired. Since much of the KMT's wealth is
the result of investments made from the profits of
illegal acquisitions, there is no knowing where this
might stop and, indeed, whether the KMT will be left
with anything at all.
Since the party has
traditionally used its wealth to engage in what it calls
"traditional electoral practices", ie vote buying, it
will find itself hamstrung in future elections if its
wealth is diminished.
The KMT has also been an
expert player of patron-client politics during its long
incumbency. It relied on local factions to get out - and
buy in - the vote, and it nourished this
grassroots-level support through its control of the
While it might have lost the
key to the money box in the past four years, the KMT has
yet to see the mass defection of these local factions,
partly because they, like the party leadership itself,
assumed that Chen would not win reelection and,
therefore, preferred to wait four years, rather than
risk alienating their once and future masters.
Chen's victory in March has shaken this
thinking, and a pan-green majority in the legislature
will destroy it. The local factions are in politics
purely to glean whatever they can from whomever they
can. They are pan-blue simply because, as Willy Sutton
said about banks, that's where the money is. But if a
pan-green victory will mean conclusively that that will
not be where the money is for at least the next four
years and possibly more, they will desert the pan-blue
cause without a backward glance. Deprived of its wealth
and its grassroots organization, many believe the KMT
could not survive in a recognizable form.
the PFP, it is a tottering personality cult built around
its leader James Soong and the unpopular goal of
unification with China, and it seeks amalgamation with
the KMT as soon as possible.
What the election
might bring is anybody's guess. The margin of Chen's
victory in the presidential poll was so small as to give
few indications about the complicated arena of a
legislative election. There are two main factors, apart
from the parties' individual campaigns, to consider:
The first is to what extent the post-presidential
election chaos has eroded pan-blue support. Taiwanese
are even more chaos-averse than most electorates and
they respect a certain kind of stoicism. They also, of
course, have an intimate knowledge of just how their own
electoral process is carried out and its potential
pitfalls. As a result, most see the presidential
election as honest, and many see the pan-blues'
post-election behavior - basically attempting to incite
their supporters to riot to get the election result
annulled - as the utterly irresponsible behavior of vain
old men who are bad losers. But to what extent this has
eroded pan-blue support further is hard to say since
virtually no reliable polls have been conducted on the
Added to this there is the tendency of
party leaders to have less importance in legislative
elections. Voters often choose their legislators not on
the basis of party affiliation but on his or her
connection with the community - being a local is,
outside of the cities, very important - and past
performance in serving constituents' needs. Given that
most of the current crop of legislators are incumbents
seeking reelection, who have time to make their mark,
there is no guarantee that dissatisfaction over the
antics of KMT chairman Lien Chan Lien and PFP chairman
James Soong will result in a significantly weaker
performance at the polls.
The second major factor is the curious nature of
Taiwan's electoral system. Legislative elections are run
on what is known as a single-vote, multiple-member
system. This means that while each voter only has one
vote, each of the 27 electoral districts has many seats
and an even larger number of candidates. Voters make
their choice, and the top vote-getters are awarded seats
according to the number available. For example, Taipei
City's southern district returns 10 legislators.
Currently it has 31 candidates. So on election day the
900,000 or so voters will each choose one legislator,
and the top 10 vote-getters will win seats. The problem
with this system is that since no party will win all
seats, parties select the optimum number of candidates
to win as many seats as possible without spreading their
vote too thin.
On top of this, the system pits
candidates from the same party against each other, so
parties have to come up with strategies to make sure
that their top vote-getters do not take votes away from
their less popular candidates, resulting in their party
winning fewer seats. The key to this is to persuade both
voters and candidates to join in vote equalization
strategies, according to which voters are directed to
vote for a particular candidate on a party slate
according to the month of their birth, the last number
on their ID card, or some such method. The DPP has its
vote-equalization strategy well-honed but some "star"
candidates are reluctant to join, while election
strategists wonder if the DPP might not have nominated
too many candidates in the first place. The pan-blues
have also been trying to work out a vote-allocation
strategy, but this seems to have been bogged down in the
generally acrimonious relationship between the two
ostensible allies, the KMT and PFP.
have always made Taiwan elections a psychologist's
nightmare, and this one is no exception.
Laurence Eyton is the deputy
editor-in-chief of the Taipei Times newspaper and a
columnist for the Chinese-language Taiwan Daily. He has
lived and worked in Taiwan for 18 years.
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