The Economist

 

Asia

Taiwan's Elections

The embattled ruling party gets a boost

11 December 2006
From the Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire


The mayoral elections in Taipei and Kaohsiung—Taiwan's two biggest cities—on December 9th commanded almost as much attention as have national polls in recent years. On one level the results can be seen as a victory for the embattled ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose candidate managed to win in Kaohsiung, while defeat there for the opposition Kuomintang (KMT, Nationalists) casts doubt on the credentials of its party leader, Ma Ying-jeou. On another level, the outcome could be interpreted as a sign that both the pro-DPP, which advocates formal independence from China, and the KMT, which favours closer ties with the mainland, will have to move to the centre to attract the middle-ground swing voters. These voters look like being an important factor in future elections—especially as the electorate is looking increasingly fed up with the kind of bitter partisan campaigning that preceded the mayoral polls.

This (and the fact that the main parties' not-always-compliant junior partners fared poorly) could make for a calmer political atmosphere ahead of a national legislative election, due in December 2007, and the presidential poll due in March 2008. However, corruption allegations are likely to continue to dog both parties, and the position of the president, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP, will continue to remain precarious until the end of his term in 2008 (he is not allowed to stand for election a third time).

Close call

Given the problems surrounding Mr Chen—who has survived three recall motions in parliament—and the corruption scandals linked to his aides and family (his wife was recently indicted on one charge), the DPP had been expected to lose both elections. In the event the KMT candidate, Hau Lung-bin, won in Taipei by a wide margin, as expected, but the DPP candidate there, Frank Hsieh, picked up a greater proportion of the vote (41%) than opinion polls had suggested. More crucially, the DPP managed to hold on to the mayor's post in Kaohsiung. This was a morale-boosting victory, as southern Taiwan is considered to be the DPP's heartland, and a KMT victory here would have been an ill omen for the DPP's chances in the legislative and presidential elections.

The DPP candidate in Kaohsiung, Chen Chu, won by the incredibly tiny margin of 0.15% of the vote—1,114 votes from 767,868 valid ballots cast—and the KMT has demanded a recount as a result. The chance of the result being overturned is small, however. Assuming the result stands, the victory will ease some of the pressure on President Chen (no relation to Chen Chu), who had been increasingly regarded by many in the DPP as an electoral liability. The chances of his stepping down voluntarily ahead of the end of his term have therefore receded, although he has hinted that he might consider resigning if his wife is convicted of corruption-related charges.

If the mayoral elections at last give Mr Chen something to smile about, the results will be greeted with some concern by his formerly ascendant counterpart (and presidential hopeful) in the KMT, Ma Ying-jeou. With the DPP reeling from the corruption scandals and Mr Chen's popularity falling rapidly, Mr Ma's failure to deliver a resounding victory for the KMT might lead some to question his suitability as the KMT's presidential candidate in 2008, especially if the party does not fare well in the legislative election. Opinion polls had suggested a KMT victory even in Kaohsiung, but recent allegations concerning Mr Ma's own probity might have tarnished the KMT's image. It is telling that when Mr Ma was re-elected as mayor of Taipei in 2002 his margin of victory was a huge 28 percentage points; Mr Hau's was under half this. (Mr Hau has also been accused of misusing government money to pay his utility bills.)

Outlook for 2007-08

With a year to go before the parliamentary election, the chances are that any momentum gained in the polls by the DPP, or lost by the KMT, will not prove decisive. Plenty can happen before then. Moreover, divining what will happen in the Legislative Yuan elections is made more difficult by the fact that the next set of polls will be conducted under new rules, by which each constituency will return only one candidate. This will reduce the size of the legislature from 225 members to 113 and will make it more difficult for fringe candidates to win seats in parliament (who may in the past have only won a small proportion of the vote yet could still enter the legislature on a multi-candidate list).

This should make the operations of the Legislative Yuan smoother, and will reduce the influence of Taiwan's minor parties. Indeed, the DPP's partner in the "pan-green" pro-independence coalition, the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), has already had its wings clipped by the failure of its mayoral candidate in Kaohsiung to pick up even 1% of the vote. Similarly the People First Party (PFP), the KMT's partner in the "pan blue" camp, will have to rethink if its leader, James Soong, keeps his promise to retire from politics having won just 4% of the vote in Taipei. The PFP might even decide to merge with the KMT.

The TSU and the PFP are also likely to be the main losers from the reduction of the size of the legislature next year. The chances of them fielding spoiler candidates in the 2008 presidential election are therefore declining. (In 2000, Mr Soong, formerly of the KMT, ran as an independent, splitting the pan-blue vote and allowing Mr Chen to become the island's first DPP president.)

The failure of the TSU and PFP candidates to pick up many votes—and the victory of the KMT in Taipei and the DPP in Kaohsiung, their respective centres of power—suggest both parties, despite their difficulties, have consolidated their core support. The legislative and presidential elections might therefore revolve around the actions of middle-ground swing voters, who are among those likely to be most dissatisfied with the bitter partisan campaigning that preceded the mayoral elections. Both the DPP and the KMT might therefore feel it necessary to moderate their policy stances in the coming months to win middle-ground votes.

Pressure on Mr Chen is unlikely to be relieved for long, however, especially if his wife is convicted of corruption, and he may yet feel the need (as he has before) to boost his support by increasing tensions with the mainland, perhaps by pushing his controversial plans to "re-engineer" the island's constitution. However, the chance of the DPP rebelling against the president and supporting a KMT-initiated parliamentary vote to remove him from office have receded, thanks to the party's better-than-expected showing in the mayoral elections. The Economist Intelligence Unit is therefore keeping as its core forecast the prediction that Mr Chen will remain in office until the end of his term in 2008—although Mr Ma still remains the favourite to replace him.