Message-ID: <Pine.GSO.3.96.981211130909.16751B-100000@uhunix1>
Date: Fri, 11 Dec 1998 13:26:52 -1000
Sender: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@LIST.MSU.EDU>
From: Vincent K Pollard <pollard@HAWAII.EDU>
Subject: Re: Taiwan elections of 5.XII.1998 <fwd>

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Date: Fri, 11 Dec 1998 07:30:30 -1000
From: Foreign Policy Research Inst <>
Subject: Taiwan’s December Elections: Implications for Beijing

Taiwan’s December elections: Implications for Beijing

By Deborah A. Brown, James A. Robinson, and Eric P. Moon, 11 December 1998

Mark Twain once said after he lost an election, The public has spoken—God damn them. So must run the initial post-election feelings of Taiwan’s chief opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which since its founding in 1986 has been a vigorous agent for Taiwan’s democratization. Now it must contemplate a frustrating defeat at the hands of the voters who went to the polls on December 5 to choose the mayors and city councils for Taiwan’s largest cities, Taipei and Kaohsiung, and members of Taiwan’s parliament.

The Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang or KMT) has dominated politics since its arrival in Taiwan in 1949 following the communist victory in China. But for the last decade, the KMT had been losing support to the rising DPP, which began as a protest party against the KMT’s authoritarian rule and in favor of Taiwan’s independence.

The December 5 elections, however, reversed that trend, exceeding the KMT’s highest hopes and the DPP’s worst fears. The KMT recaptured the prized mayorship of Taipei from the DPP, as well as a firm majority in Taiwan’s parliament, 44 percent of the city council seats in Taipei and 52 percent in Kaohsiung. In contrast, the DPP saw its incumbent Taipei mayor, Chen Shui-bian, lose by some 78,000 votes to the KMT’s challenger, Ma Ying-jeou. In the parliamentary election, the DPP not only lost seats in the legislature, but also saw its share of the popular vote drop from 35.95 percent to 29.55 percent, its poorest showing since 1992. The one redeeming spot in the outcome for the DPP was the upset of the incumbent Kaohsiung mayor, the KMT’s Wu Den-yi, after a hard-fought race by Frank Hsieh. Thus, the mayorship of both principal cities changed hands and remain divided between the two leading political parties. The mayorship of Taipei, however, holds far greater prestige.

At first blush, then, the overall election results appear to be a serious setback for the DPP, especially after its stunning advances in the November 1997 small city mayoral and county magistrate elections, which made many native Taiwanese hopeful and Beijing fearful that, by 2000, the DPP would replace the KMT as Taiwan’s ruling party. Closer analysis, however, cautions against both complacency within the KMT and despondency within the DPP.

The December 5 results are actually not overly reassuring for the KMT. Its loss of the Kaohsiung mayoral post, widely expected to remain under KMT control, shows that in southern Taiwan, where the influence of mainlanders is less prevalent than in the north, the KMT is vulnerable. In fact, all counties surrounding Kaohsiung were already controlled by DPP magistrates. Furthermore, while the KMT increased its share of seats in the legislature, this was principally due to the enlargement of the total number of seats in the body from 164 to 225, allowing the well-financed KMT to field more candidates than the less financially endowed DPP. In the future, the KMT must expect ardent competition for these seats.

There are still more unsettling factors for the KMT as it considers how to maintain its political dominance. The central government decided to dissolve the Provincial Assembly as of December 21, and many of the Provincial Assembly KMT members who won seats in the parliament may not bow to party discipline. At least some of these new members, who are well aware that they owe their election victories to the provincial KMT cells they cultivated on their own rather than to the helpful hand of the KMT central government, bitterly resent the dissolution of the assembly. In fact, by abolishing the Provincial Assembly, the central government has undermined the patronage these new legislators once wielded, forcing them to develop new channels of influence.

Perhaps the most troublesome post-election challenge the KMT must confront is the decline of the radical right-wing New Party, comprised largely of disgruntled former KMT members. Although the party’s public popularity is exceedingly low—it won only 7.05 percent of the popular vote in the legislative election—its members’ demands on the KMT are likely to mount. In the high-profile race for Taipei’s mayor, many New Party members voted for Ma, helping to ensure Chen Shui-bian’s defeat. Having contributed to Ma’s victory, these New Party members, who support unification with the mainland—a very unpopular position in Taiwan -- presumably will demand payback from the KMT or even abandon their failing party and try to reassert themselves within the KMT. In either case, pressure will build for the KMT to compromise with this fringe group. Clearly, any accommodation of unpopular nonmainstream views will stimulate internal KMT conflict in the future.

Meanwhile, on some levels, the election results were not so gloomy for the DPP. The party marginally increased its share of seats in the Taipei and Kaohsiung city councils from 30 percent to 37 percent. And while its share of the vote in the parliamentary contest declined, this principally reflects division within the party’s own ranks rather than an increase in the popularity of the KMT. Indeed, the KMT’s share of the vote in the legislative contest actually declined to 46.43 percent on December 5 from 49.91 percent in the previous legislative contest in 1995. Thus, it was the splintering of the DPP itself that chiefly led to its December 5 vote share decline. If the votes captured by the DPP and its splinter groups (the New Nation Alliance and the Taiwan Independence Party) were combined, its legislative vote share would be approximately as stable as the KMT’s.

What does all this mean for cross-Strait relations? First and foremost, the hotly contested races on December 5, most especially in Taiwan’s major cities, prove the democratic process is alive and well in Taiwan. Challengers of this view quickly point to the fact that, despite more than ten years of multiparty politics, Taiwan’s major opposition party has still never taken control of power at the national level, but that could be changing. While Ma’s strong triumph in Taipei presumably has bolstered the prospects of KMT Vice-President Lien Chan as a presidential candidate in 2000, Lien’s apparent lack of public support remains troublesome for the KMT, unless somehow the party can convince popular Provincial Governor James Soong (or perhaps more importantly President Lee Teng-hui, with whom Soong has been at odds) to be Lien’s running mate. Thus, Saturday’s defeat has certainly not foreclosed the DPP’s chances for the 2000 presidential race. Indeed, some argue that any KMT candidate will be a weak opponent against Chen Shui-bian, who at least for now seems to enjoy great public support throughout the island. Some observers believe that Chen’s defeat will benefit him by freeing him to concentrate on the 2000 presidential race. Many analysts say Beijing fears him because of his strong pro-Taiwan independence stance, and a Chen presidency in Taiwan could be seen as a serious threat.

Closely related to this concern for Beijing is the matter of Taiwan’s national identity. Polls show that Taiwan’s people increasingly do not want unification with the mainland and that the majority want nothing short of the status quo. December 5 showed that the pro-unification New Party decidedly lacks the favor of the people. Even Ma, who many people believe has New Party leanings, felt compelled to define himself not as a second generation mainlander, but rather as a new Taiwanese. In other words, even candidates of mainland background are becoming born-again Taiwanese. The days of political domination in Taiwan by mainland Chinese are over. From this point forward, as a result of Ma’s embracing the new Taiwanese and Taiwan First slogans, whoever wishes to hold the highest offices will have to identify closely with Taiwan’s majority—who do not want to be dominated by an undemocratic People’s Republic of China. The DPP’s relatively poor showing in the legislative race and loss of Taipei’s highest office does not change this reality.