Financial Times

Chen wins Taiwan constitutional assembly vote

By Kathrin Hille in Taipei
Published: May 15 2005

China's attempt to isolate Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan's president, suffered a severe setback after his Democratic Progressive Party won a special election widely seen as a referendum on cross-Strait policy.

In a surprise result, Mr Chen's Democratic Progressive Party won 42.5 per cent of the vote, while the opposition Kuomintang finished second with 38.9 per cent in Saturday's polls for a National Assembly. The Assembly will be charged with ratifying draft constitutional changes viewed as a move towards independence by Beijing.

With turnout hitting a historical record low of 23 per cent, observers said the results could not be interpreted as a strong mandate for Mr Chen to pursue pro-independence policies.

But the polls showed that Taiwan's voters were far less eager to see closer contacts with the mainland than suggested by the “China fever” triggered by the Beijing visits of the island's two opposition leaders.

In the run-up to the election, the Chinese leadership courted Lien Chan, KMT chairman, and James Soong, chairman of the People First Party, a former KMT breakaway faction. The two held separate meetings with Hu Jintao, China's president, which were billed as “historical” by China's state-controlled press and Taiwan's opposition.

The two opposition parties called on their supporters to make Saturday's election a vote on cross-Strait policy. The KMT had said it expected to win and reverse a long-term trend under which the DPP has expanded its share of the vote.

Mr Lien yesterday blamed rainstorms in most of northern Taiwan - a KMT stronghold - for the low turnout and said the election results did “not adequately reflect the respective political parties' support.”

But observers said the opposition's failure to translate their China policy initiatives into votes represented a clear defeat.

“The respective parties have demonstrated their ability to mobilise their most loyal supporters. That middle-class voters did not bother to come out to force the government into talks with China is a clear message,” said Hsu Yung-ming, a researcher at Academia Sinica.

The PFP saw its share of the vote drop in comparison with its representation in the legislature by almost half to 6.1 per cent, and the Taiwan Solidarity Union, a radically pro-independence splinter group, became the third-largest party with 7 per cent.

Annette Lu, vice president, hailed the election results as a “No to China” and said Beijing should “listen to the Taiwanese people”.

Constitutional reforms, which formed the core of Mr Chen's re-election agenda last year, are now almost certain to proceed. The draft reform package, which can only be adopted or rejected as a whole by the National Assembly, includes a downsizing of the legislature, a new electoral system which would strengthen large parties, and the introduction of referenda as the instrument for ratification of future constitutional changes.

With the DPP, the KMT and a number of small groupings supporting the changes, Saturday's election gave the “Yes” camp a 249 of the National Assembly's 300 seats - a majority large enough to prevail even if the body decides to adopt a 3/4 threshold for valid decisions.