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Taiwan elections curiouser and curiouser
By Laurence Eyton

TAIPEI - Taiwan's elections just keep getting weirder. With voting in legislative elections scheduled for Saturday, and the campaign in its last week, it is time to take stock of what has been a decidedly odd campaign. What has made it so is that the two main political blocs, the governing "pan-green" Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) (pan-green after the color of the DPP emblem) and the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), has espoused a campaign platform exactly the opposite of what conventional wisdom, based on past successes and failures, would advise. That is, they are talking up independence-type issues and constitutional reform, though the DPP is not calling for outright independence of the self-governing island.

Meanwhile the opposition "pan-blue" camp of the Kuomintang (KMT) (pan-blue after the color of the KMT emblem) and the People First Party (PFP), appears to have disintegrated around a perceived stinginess with cash, and more importantly, the PFP's insistence that the KMT follow a political line that many of its legislative candidates dislike and most of which see as electoral suicide.

The strangeness of the campaign makes predicting the election outcome rather more of a gamble than some pundits seem to think.
First, a look at the DPP which, with more than six times the number of seats of the TSU, is far and away the senior partner of the pan-green alliance, and its campaign strategy, which seems to fly in the face of a decade of hard-won experience.

In the early 1990s the DPP made a serious mistake. From the party's founding in the mid-1980s until that time, it had advocated Taiwan's formal independence from China. But this was interpreted locally as Taiwan's independence from the Republic of China, ie, the gang of mainlander exiles who had run Taiwan as their personal fiefdom since Chiang Kai-shek's flight from the mainland in 1949 and who had locked themselves in office until China was "recovered" from the communists.

"Independence" was, therefore, seen by many not as related to Taiwan's relationship with China across the Taiwan Strait, but rather as a code for restoring political rights to the Taiwanese majority and holding democratic elections for national-level political positions and institutions. "Independence" really meant majority rule.

By 1992, the battle for majority rule was won and democratization was in full swing. The DPP, looking for a new reason for being, then chose to make the seeking of de jure independence for Taiwan the basis of the party's platform.

But with majority rule a reality, independence no longer was a code word for political rights for the Taiwanese, but rather a portent of trouble with China, a factor that the KMT took every opportunity to stress. Predictably the DPP suffered. Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan's president since 2000, captured the Taipei City mayorship in 1994 - admittedly against a split opposition vote - giving some hope that the DPP was on a roll. But legislative elections in 1995 were a bitter disappointment. And while the DPP performed extremely well in local elections in 1997, its performance was disappointing in legislative elections in 1998. The message came through loud and clear that while many voters preferred the clean DPP to the highly corrupt KMT in local government, nevertheless they did not trust the DPP with real power at the national level. And the reason for this was quite plain - the DPP's commitment to independence.

Since 1998 the DPP has, therefore, been running away from its independence stance, first sidelining it and then simply abolishing it. This does not mean that the party has embraced reunification with China. Rather it claims that Taiwan, or the "Republic of China" is already an independent country under international law - whether the rest of the world recognizes this or not - and therefore to "seek" independence is meaningless.

Once again there has been a subtext for voters here, namely that the DPP saw no reason to change the status quo - which is overwhelmingly the preference of most Taiwanese.

Chen Shui-bian's presidential election victory in 2000 - once again - had everything to do with a split opposition vote and little to do with the DPP's new pragmatism on independence. But there is no doubt that the DDP's triumph in legislative elections in 2001, and Chen's re-election victory against a united opposition in March this year were fueled by voters' new trust in the DPP not to do anything foolish.

Meanwhile, the KMT had shifted from being the party of the status quo, which it had been through the 1990s, to a party of what could only be called paleo-nationalism, in which the iconography of the days of martial law and the one-party state was dusted off and presented as something inspiriting nostalgia. The party leadership had become stridently unificationist and had been getting far too cozy with Beijing, which its officials frequently visited.

If Chen won power by accident in 2000, he quickly proved that he was to be trusted, and he and his party soon reaped rewards.

But measured against this considerable behind-the-scenes story and history, the DPP campaign this year is looking decidedly odd.

The problem the pan-greens must overcome is that throughout Chen's presidency, the pan-blues have controlled the legislature. While the 2001 election made the DPP the biggest party, it nevertheless gave the combined pan-blues a paper-thin overall majority, which has proved extraordinarily resilient despite the DPP's efforts to wean away the considerable number of KMT legislators disillusioned with their party's disastrous leadership and pro-China leanings. The pan-blues have used their majority to block almost everything the government has tried to do. What could not be carried out by executive order simply has not been done at all, unless the blues have found a way to work it to their advantage. Taiwan might have had an administration these last four years, but not what is generally though of as a government. It is essential, therefore, for the pan-greens to win a majority of seats on Saturday if Chen's second term is not to be wasted like his first.

The campaign designed to bring this about started out normally enough, with a two-pronged strategy that could have been very effective, but now we will never know. Chen, the DPP's star, was to go around the island giving uplifting speeches on the wonderful things the pan-greens, finally having legislative power, were going to do for Taiwan, while a cabal of senior DPP figures such as Premier Yu Shyi-kun and Frank Hsieh, the mayor of Kaohsiung, would travel the same circuit attacking the pan-blues. The idea was to present the president as a man of hope and leave the negative campaigning to his underlings.

It started well enough with Chen talking about all the important legislation that was waiting to be passed but so far had been held up by pan-blue obstructionism. This included a state pension for senior citizens - a popular move that the pan-blues wanted to keep for themselves - and a bill to divest the KMT of the billions of dollars in state assets it illegally transferred into its own pocket during its 50 years of rule with impunity. The money, Chen promised, would be used to provide free school meals and textbooks. Truth commissions were promised for old grievances, such as the 1947 massacre of Taiwanese by KMT troops, and the many years of political repression known as the "White Terror".

So far, relatively uncontroversial. But then Chen went off the rails. It started with his claiming that after the presidential election in March and his razor's edge victory, the pan-blues had tried to organize what he called a "soft coup", trying to create a crisis of confidence that would pressure the government to annul the election results, by persuading large numbers of senior military officers to call in sick.

It was a bold claim and so far completely unsubstantiated, despite Chen's claims of having irrefutable evidence. The risk to his credibility was obvious, but while a libel suit has been pending, the situation has been very ineffectually exploited by the pan-blues.

Since then Chen has concentrated his campaign almost exclusively on the question of constitutional reform. Taiwan's constitution was drawn up in China while the KMT still governed there. Designed for a large country, it is deemed far too complex for the government of a small one. More importantly, particularly after its frequent amendment over the last 14 years, it has become unclear where the real power lies, both within the executive itself and between the executive and the legislature. Does Taiwan have a parliamentary system, in which the dominant group in the legislature has real executive power and the president is little more than a figurehead, or does it have a presidential system in which the president forms the cabinet and wields a veto over wayward legislation? Right now it is a hotchpotch between the two. Chen has long wanted to sort out this mess - a mess to which the DPP has been a formidable contributor during previous sessions of constitutional amendment.

Constitutional change might not sound like a topic to motivate people to go out and vote, but the story gets even stranger. For Chen has wandered further and further away from the practical issues of the flaws in the current constitution and increasingly dallied with issues that have previously spelled doom for the DPP. He talks of rewriting the constitution rather than revising it, a move China has said it would take as tantamount to a declaration of independence, and talk of which has worried Washington so much that State Department spokesman Richard Boucher verbally rapped Chen's knuckles at the end of November, reiterating the US stance of opposing either side of the Taiwan Strait doing anything to change the status quo.

And while Chen has said that he would hold to his 2000 inaugural pledge not to change the country's name, he has recently said that, nevertheless, for all practical purposes - the names of "non-official" overseas missions and state-owned enterprises, for example - the use of "China" in names should be replaced with "Taiwan". (On Tuesday the US said quite clearly that it also opposed this move.)

The really odd thing about this is that the pan-greens will certainly not win enough seats in the legislature - a super-majority of 75% of legislators is needed - to pass a motion for constitutional change. Chen has said that the new constitution will be approved by a referendum. But this would still require a constitutional change to allow a referendum on the constitution, so the problem of the 75% super-majority remains - a detail that hardly any voters seem to realize and that the opposition has not exploited.

Chen's strategy, therefore, appears extremely odd in that it has centered around the kind of Taiwan independence-oriented issues that in the past have alienated voters - at the expense of China's predictable anger and Washington's alarm - and on which, in the end, he will probably not be able to redeem his promises.

Add to this a determined campaign from the DPP ally, the TSU, over changing Taiwan's formal designation, and a row between greens and blues about teaching more Taiwanese history in schools and removing exam questions about China from civil service exams. The greens have a campaign full of hot-button issues for the party faithful but hardly very appealing to floating voters.

What is going on? There has been little discussion of the DPP's odd strategy and almost no explanation. We do know that polls in mid-November showed a lack of pep in the campaign and, therefore, a decision was taken to try to fire up the party faithful by appealing to issues closer to their heart. But what of the floating voters? After all, aren't elections supposed to be won in the middle? Certainly that is not where the DPP's campaign is directed.

To speculate a little, the answer might be found in US President George W Bush's re-election last month. Bush showed that you can win not by appealing to the center but by better mobilizing your core support. This was sensible enough because after four years of the deeply polarizing Bush there wasn't much center left in the US to win over.

Taiwan is in a similar situation. After the ugly presidential election campaign and the pan-blue-inspired chaos in its aftermath, there simply isn't any middle ground. Anecdotally, this reporter has not met a single person in Taiwan whose mind was not made up about who to vote for long before the campaign really kicked off. Chen isn't, therefore, afraid of losing the center ground simply because, in Taiwan at least, it doesn't exist. What he is aiming at is mobilizing the "pale greens", who otherwise might not bother to vote.

Laurence Eyton is deputy editor in chief of Taipei Times. He has worked in Taiwan for 18 years.

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Dec 9, 2004
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