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Polls highlight Taiwan's identity crisis
By John J Tkacik Jr

TAIPEI - This Saturday's elections for members of Taiwan's legislature are likely to continue the political momentum in Taiwan toward a public consensus on the island's "national identity" (guojia rentong). Pollsters at the Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headquarters told Asia Times Online that they see a "pretty certain" 113 seats for the DPP and its allies from the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU). This would give them an absolute but thin majority in the 225-seat Legislative Yuan. But they also see wins for six additional "independent" legislators who are sympathetic to the DPP-TSU agenda. Moreover, by controlling the presidential office of incumbent Chen Shui-bian, the DPP potentially can induce the defection of several Kuomintang (KMT) "nativist" (bentu) faction members with offers of executive jobs, seats in the Control Yuan, or state-invested enterprises.

One political observer said if the DPP-led "pan-green" (after the color of the DPP emblem) coalition didn't win 125 seats after Saturday's balloting, he'd buy me dinner. Nonetheless, it is true that the DPP and TSU are actively working their constituencies to even out their vote-allotments (pei-piao) in single-vote, multi-seat districts in order to maximize the number of legislators they can elect. And it appears that the KMT pan-blues (after the color of the KMT emblem) are now trying to cut their losses by getting several of their candidates to drop out of the race (known as the qi-bao or the "abandon-protect" strategy), so that an over-large number of candidates will not dilute the average voter support. In short, the DPP pan-greens sound and act as though they know they are going to win, and the KMT and the pan-blues sound and act like they are going to lose.

One of the interesting aspects of the current legislative campaign in Taiwan is how low-keyed it is compared with the previous legislative campaign in December 2001. Three years ago, it was round-the-clock rallies, television ads and general hoo-hah. This time, Taipei seems strangely subdued, and down-island the rallies are less frenetic - and less populated.

In Taipei, the campaigning is party-based and issue-centric. The candidates tout their party ties, and focus on controversial issues - Taiwan's constitutional reforms and the tried-and-true guns-'n'-butter debate of whether the national treasury is better spent on defense of the nation or on social programs. Paradoxically, the two major camps have switched sides in the guns-butter debate, with the "pan-greens" (who now believe they have a country to defend) clamoring for enhanced national defenses, and the "pan-blues" (who no longer see themselves winning the Chinese civil war and would rather China ruled Taiwan than the Taiwanese), arguing that no defenses are needed any more.

But down-island, such as the Changhwa district just south of Taichung, the campaign seems kinder and gentler. To be sure, partisan affiliation is important if you're a green. The campaign flags of the six DPP-TSU candidates each proudly proclaim his or her party's support. Only one of the three KMT candidates seems comfortable with his or her affiliation. The rest are non-committal. One KMT candidate who spoke to Asia Times Online insisted that the race in Changhwa revolved around "service to constituents". Indeed, most of the Changhwa candidates seemed content to run on the basis of their local organizations, their personal relations and their promises to take care of their citizens.

On paper, there are 19 candidates for Changhwa County's 10 seats. Six minor candidates have already dropped out so as to boost support for their remaining partisans. The DPP still has five running (up from four now), and the TSU has one in the race (up from zero last time). The KMT has three running, (down from four now), and the pro-China People First Party (PFP) has one (no change). According to DPP partisans, all five DPP candidates will win, as will the TSU man and one pro-green independent. All three KMT candidates are likely to win, but their PFP ally will not. One of the KMT candidates was upbeat, but admitted it would be a tough fight to get the minimum 40,000 votes to guarantee a seat.

But the DPP-TSU greens seem to have latched onto a winning issue in Taiwan's southern marshes - national identity. While a bit uneasy with the defense spending issue, all the greens pledged their support for massive constitutional changes championed by DPP President Chen Shui-bian. Several of the independents' pamphlets touted their "native roots" (bentu-gen), proclaimed they would "work for Changhwa", and one admitted-KMT candidate, Chen Chieh, carried a flag that said, "Sacred Ma-Tsu will watch what the people do." (An uncharitable green supporter explained that KMT vote-buyers make their voters pledge on an image of the Goddess Ma-Tzu before giving them a red packet of cash to cast their secret ballot. A proud devotee of Ma-Tzu is likely to get a faithful co-religionist vote in Changhwa. Mat-Tzu, the goddess of the sea, is a supremely important folk deity in Taiwan.)

If, as the DPP suggests, the party wins a convincing mandate on Saturday, it will have profound implications for Taiwan's future - and for America in Asia. A significant win in the 2004 legislative elections will continue the momentum of the March 2004 presidential win by the DPP's Chen Shui-bian, and the 2001 legislative balloting that saw the KMT lose over half its seats, and the DPP and its allies increase their presence by over 50%. It establishes that a new constitution and Taiwan's fast crystallizing "national identity" are the new mainstream sentiments on Taiwan's political scene.

It promises to spring US$16.4 billion for defense procurement from the US. It also presents a dilemma for Washington. Taiwan's democratically ratified decision to move toward a new identity will be difficult for policymakers in the the administration of President George W Bush to resist - especially in light of the oft-repeated Bush administration pledge to "support the global expansion of democracy". It will be much easier for Bush's Pentagon planners to handle, because they have been badgering Taiwan to fish-or-cut-bait on its defense spending ever since the White House approved a $24 billion arms package in April 2001.

Psychologically, it will be very difficult for the Bush administration to put the brakes on Taiwan's democracy if, at the same time, it is committed to arming democratic Taiwan up to its proverbial teeth in order to defend its independence from communist China. Very difficult, that is, unless Bush can convince Chen (and his predecessor and mentor Lee Teng-hui) to cooperate. And doing that will require an understanding all around that keeping a lid on Taiwan's aspirations to independence - until such time as Taiwan can actually defend itself without US help - is the only way.

John J Tkacik Jr is a resident fellow in Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He is a retired officer in the US Foreign Service who served in Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou and was chief of the China division in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. He has been watching Taiwan politics for 30 years.

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Dec 7, 2004
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