The presidential election race begins
10 May 2007
Mixed blessings for China
TAIPEI -- Political developments in Taiwan rarely bring cheer for China. But the ruling party's surprising choice for its candidate to fight next year's presidential elections will at least provide a little comfort to the government in Beijing. It would be happier still if he were to lose.
Frank Hsieh, a former prime minister who wants better relations with China, won the nomination after a decisive victory in a ballot on May 6th among members of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). He got 45% of the vote, compared with 33% for his main rival, the incumbent prime minister, Su Tseng-chang. This was a blow to President Chen Shui-bian, who favoured Mr Su and a tougher stance towards China.
Just as remarkably, given bitter in-fighting within the DPP, Mr Su and the two other candidates withdrew gracefully from the race. According to party rules, they could have fought a further round. Mr Hsieh's nomination will be formally confirmed at the DPP's annual congress on June 30th.
Mr Hsieh has a reputation as a scrapper, having survived numerous crises and failures. These include a defeat as a vice-presidential candidate in 1996 and controversy about alleged connections with a cult led by a man claiming to have supernatural powers who has been convicted of fraud. Only five months ago, Mr Hsieh lost a race for the mayorship of Taipei. He hopes his political fortunes will mimic those of President Chen, who won the presidency in 2000 after losing a bid for re-election as mayor of Taipei in 1998. In the presidential election next March, Mr Hsieh's chief opponent will be the man who defeated Mr Chen in 1998, Ma Ying-jeou, the charismatic nominee of the main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT).
Mr Hsieh owes his victory partly to the frustration of DPP members with Mr Chen's lacklustre performance. But he faces a tough battle against Mr Ma. A poll released this week by the China Times, a pro-KMT newspaper, put Mr Ma nine points ahead of Mr Hsieh, although he led by 20 points before the primary.
Criminal investigations might yet play a role in the contest. Mr Ma is on trial for allegedly embezzling a mayoral special allowance and has vowed to remain in the race even if found guilty. There is speculation that Mr Hsieh, too, might be indicted on corruption charges in a case dating back to his tenure as mayor of the island's second-largest city, Kaohsiung, from 1998 to 2005. Should he be charged, the DPP would probably put pressure on him to withdraw.
Like President Chen, Mr Hsieh is a former lawyer who in the past defended dissidents under the authoritarian rule of the KMT. Unlike Mr Chen, who takes an uncompromising stance towards China, Mr Hsieh has called for “coexistence and reconciliation”, though he has also called for constitutional revisions aimed at making Taiwan a “normal country”—a goal that has caused considerable anxiety in both Beijing and Washington, DC.
China would prefer a victory for Mr Ma, who has pushed for better ties with China, particularly economic ones. He has not ruled out unification, though he says China must become a democracy first. The coming months are likely to be turbulent ones in Taiwanese politics, something China never likes.