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Taiwan's 'post-election stress syndrome'
By Laurence Eyton

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.

This increase 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.

For DPP 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.

A 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 assets back.

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 government coffers.

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.

As for 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 topic.

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.

Such factors 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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Dec 1, 2004
Asia Times Online Community



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