December 15, 2004

December 15, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

The Trouble in Taiwan

The unexpected defeat of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party in legislative elections Saturday will no doubt abate worries in Washington that Taiwan's infant democracy had been getting a bit ahead of itself. Against expectations, the pro-China "Blue Camp," led by the Kuomintang, maintained a narrow parliamentary majority in the Legislative Yuan, while the DPP-led pro-independence "Greens" made only slight gains over their 2001 election successes.

Despite making some gains, the stunned Greens were humiliated, and two top DPP campaign managers submitted their resignations. Of course, Beijing will take heart from the vote as well. The DPP's call for a new, non-Chinese "national identity" bolstered by a new, non-Chinese constitution was the centerpiece of the campaign, so the outcome will lead Beijing to believe its military threats and its success in isolating Taiwan internationally have finally cowed Taiwan's citizenry into rethinking its future. But if this is China's interpretation of the vote, Washington's relief will be short-lived.

Whatever China chooses to believe, the real message of Saturday's election is not that the momentum behind a new Taiwanese identity is flagging. It isn't. Rather, the message is that Taiwan's young democracy is ready for a complete structural overhaul. With this blistering four-month parliamentary campaign coming right on the heels of last March's presidential election, Taiwanese citizens are suffering from acute election fatigue.

The outcome was that the opposition "Blue" camp, comprised of the KMT and the even more pro-China People First Party, and their "Green" counterpart, the "independence-later" DPP and the "independence-now" Taiwan Solidarity Union, simply wrestled each other to another sterile deadlock.

When the last ballot was counted Saturday evening, both camps realized that the only thing they had accomplished was to consolidate their political bases. The "national identity" issue polarized the electorate, drawing 49% of those who voted to the hard-core "Blues" who consider Taiwan to be a "Chinese" nation that is eventually to be unified with the mainland, while the hard-core "Greens," who demand a uniquely "Taiwanese" Taiwan, got 46%.

But Taiwan's moderate center just stayed home. Voter turnout was only 59% -- six percentage points below the previous legislative election, and a full 20 percentage points below the narrow 50-50 split in the March presidential election.

Candidates in both camps fretted to me over the past three weeks that voter enthusiasm was "cool" compared to earlier campaigns. Bi-khim Hsiao, a successful, moderate DPP candidate in Taipei, admitted that getting out the vote had been a challenge. Bo Tedards, an American with the Taiwan Network for Free Elections, explained that "both sides put too much emphasis on the national identity issue instead of on policies and programs that really matter to people."

Perhaps more important, Richard C. Kagan of Hamline University pointed to an A.C. Nielsen survey published last month that showed consumer confidence in Taiwan down nearly 20 points since May in contrast with the bullish sentiment in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. Scholars believe that turnout would have been higher if public policy issues, rather than ideology, had been more prominent during the legislative campaign.

Fortunately for Taiwan's voters, this should be the last ideology-centered legislative poll. The country's current "multi-seat, single ballot" system is a Byzantine process tailor-made for fringe parties playing to hard-core constituencies. But last August, Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, in a rare fit of sanity, passed sweeping reforms that cut the number of legislators in half and create new single-member, winner-take-all districts that force candidates to vie for the moderate voters in the center.

Unfortunately, Taiwan's voters have to put up with this newly re-elected opposition "Blue" legislature continuing its ideological battles with the "Green" executive until 2008.

For Washington policy-makers who feared that Taiwan's voters were running headlong into a military confrontation with China some relief is justified. Taiwan's voters chose the status quo. But in doing so, they guaranteed a continuation of the policy gridlock and hyper-partisan politics that has paralyzed Taiwan's governance since President Chen Shui-bian was first elected in 2000.

Many Taiwanese had hoped that partisan tensions would subside if the Green coalition won a majority in this election. There has been a steady momentum in Taiwan's electorate for a new "national identity" separate from China. That momentum, according to most polls, was to have given Mr. Chen a mandate for a wholly new, non-Chinese constitution to replace the one now in effect on Taiwan. The present one is obsolete, having been written in China by the Chinese KMT in 1947 to govern the landmass of mainland China. It was intended moreover to perpetuate the KMT's single-party rule.

But Saturday's vote has halted that momentum and continued paralysis is certain. One major campaign issue that KMT Chairman Lien Chan stressed was his demand that the Legislature name the next Premier -- a right granted under the existing constitution to Taiwan's president alone. The Blue win guarantees a protracted fight over the next cabinet, and over just about everything else, a prospect that exasperates KMT moderates. Over the past week, several senior KMT officials, including newly re-elected KMT Legislator John Chang (son of Taiwan's late president Chiang Ching-kuo, and grandson of Chiang Kai-shek), indicated to me and my fellow election observers in Taipei that they hoped Mr. Lien would step down as KMT chairman. Until then, Mr. Chang warned, the KMT would bottle up key legislation, like the constitutional revisions, financial reforms -- and the controversial "Special Defense Budget" request to finance Taiwan's defense against Chinese missiles and submarines.

Failure to pass the special budget has been -- and no doubt will continue to be -- a source of deep frustration in Washington, which sees the military balance in the Taiwan Strait tipping increasingly to Beijing. At some point, the Pentagon fears, Beijing will be tempted to use its military predominance in a sudden strike against Taiwan and the United States will not be able to react in time.

Taiwan's defenses cannot afford another four years of neglect while a pro-China "Blue" legislature quietly moves the Island into the anaconda-like embrace of the Chinese Motherland. As Taiwan's defenses deteriorate, no one argues that China will halt or even slow down its massive arms buildup opposite the Island. Relief in Washington that political gridlock will forestall Taiwan's pesky "provocations" will quickly be supplanted by the horrifying thought that a rising China will, in a matter of years, be able to absorb Taiwan, its technology, its weaponry, its massive foreign exchange reserves -- in short, everything except its democracy.

John J. Tkacik Jr. is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in The Asian Wall Street Journal