The recent election results in Taiwan neither demonstrate an appetite for rapprochement with China nor denial that Taiwan is de facto independent from the People’s Republic.
By Alexander Neill
Head of the Asia Security Programme
January 2008 - Taiwan’s opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), won a surprise landslide victory against the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on 12 January in the first legislative elections since the 2005 restructuring of Taiwan’s Parliament, the Legislative Yuan (LY). The DPP, which favours independence from mainland China, has suffered a severe blow to its hopes of retaining the Presidency, elections for which will be held on 22 March. Taiwan’s current President Chen Shui-bian, who will automatically step down later this year after serving two terms, was widely blamed for the election defeat of his party. Chen resigned in shame as Chairman of the DPP and has handed over the Party reins to the Presidential candidate Frank Hsieh.
While the KMT victory would appear to bode well for cross-strait relations and the potential for hostility between China has been ostensibly reduced, this is certainly not a fait accompli. As the DPP reels from this major setback, the Taiwanese stock market surges and Beijing’s deterrence strategists congratulate themselves on a job well done, the fight for the political centre ground in Taiwan will intensify. This could provoke an angry response from a nervous and tight-lipped China if Hsieh manages to salvage support for his party.
It is important to differentiate the character of these elections from those of the Presidential elections scheduled for March. While Taiwan’s legislative election resembled a contest which would not be out of place in contintental Europe, it did not focus on the core identity of the Taiwanese electorate. The Presidential election certainly will, by calling a referendum on the Island joining the UN under the name ‘Taiwan’ on the eve of the contest. This question attracts most attention from cross-strait security analysts because it agitates the thorn in the side of China’s sovereignty and disturbs the fragile cross-strait status quo.
The voter turnout of approximately 58 per cent was the lowest since the first legislative elections in 1992 which attracted a near 70 per cent turnout. Overall, the KMT won eighty-one seats and the DPP twenty-seven seats, with the remaining five seats going to smaller parties or non-affiliated candidates. The changes set in place since the last election reduced the number of available LY seats from 225 to 113; the election system was also revamped to become a mixed system of 79 single-seat election districts plus 34 at-large seats elected proportionally.
The election was accompanied by two referendums, neither of which achieved the required 50 per cent of eligible voters to pass. One was initiated by the DPP, demanding the return of assets amassed during 50 years of KMT one-party rule; the other initiated by the KMT on investigating senior DPP officials for corruption.
The KMT’s tactic was to obstruct the holding of any referendum and initially it tried to force balloting for the referendums at separate locations. The Central Election Commission subsequently decided that the balloting would be co-located, causing the KMT to urge its voters simply not to vote in the referendum. Nevertheless, the DPP referendum received 91 per cent of the 4.25 million votes cast while the KMT referendum received 58 per cent of 3.96 million votes cast.
The best indicator for overall support of the various parties is the proportionally elected ‘at-large’ allocation of seats where the KMT received 51.2 per cent of the vote (20 seats), the DPP 36.9 per cent (14 seats), the New Party 3.9 per cent and the TSU 3.5 per cent.
In the newly restructured ‘winner-takes-all’ single-seat-district races, the KMT won a much larger number of seats than forecast, winning sixty-one seats against only thirteen for the DPP.
As the dust settles, DPP campaigners have argued that the election results are skewed for a number of reasons. The KMT allegedly enjoyed a 10-seat advantage right from the start in locations where the party has a traditional monopoly. This includes a number of smaller districts like Kinmen, Matsu, Taitung and the six seats reserved for aboriginals. The KMT is also by far the richest contender, its bulging coffers a legacy of its fifty year period of martial law as the ruling party. Compounding this, a number of DPP legislators who lost their party nominations in the LY downsizing process broke ranks and ran in the elections, splitting the pan-green vote.
Ever since the KMT sent its senior emissaries to Beijing in 2005 to shake hands with Chinese Communist Party leaders and to place the re-unification question well over the horizon, financial moguls have been biding their time in anticipation of the rewards to be reaped from a cross-strait rapprochement. However, the Presidential election in March will be accompanied by an extremely controversial referendum which will ask Taiwanese voters to take a deep introspective look at the fundamental character of Taiwanese society. The referendum pushes Taiwan closer towards a red line which represents the elastic limit for Beijing’s tolerance of secessionist behaviour by Taiwan. China has already enacted an anti-secession law which does not rule out the use of force, were Taiwan to move towards formal independence from the Mainland. The teeth behind this legislation are the 1,000-plus missiles pointed by the People’s Liberation Army strategic rocket force at Taiwan.
This causes neuralgia for the United States, the EU and all free democracies ascribing to the principle of ‘One China’. The KMT and DPP may differ on their approach to China, but both are in agreement that Taiwan is a free and democratic nation, that wants to be a full and equal member in the international community. In this respect, even with Taiwan’s President out of the equation, the LY election results neither demonstrate an appetite for rapprochement with China nor denial that Taiwan is de facto independent from the People’s Republic. The Presidential election will be fought over very different territory to that of the legislative elections over the weekend. With the politcal legacy of the DPP’s eight year independence-leaning rule now at stake it remains to be seen whether or not Beijing will be capable keeping its vow of silence until 22 March.
Senior Research Fellow, Asia Studies