Taiwan reads the election's tea leaves
| Philip Bowring
International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Hong Kong The result of Taiwan's election on Saturday has put into perspective the cross-strait hype and hoopla of the previous two weeks. The opposition leaders Lien Chan and James Soong had been feted on the mainland, and visions of imminent cross-strait rapprochement were conjured up, not least by Beijing-based foreign news media.
Despite the excitement and media attention at home and abroad, Taiwanese in the end seem largely unmoved. The polls for the National Assembly showed no significant discernible shift in the political balance within Taiwan itself. If anything, the visits may have increased adherence to the extremes of pro-and anti-unification forces, and reduced the middle ground occupied by a majority of Taiwanese.
Admittedly, the polling significance of the election was reduced by the low turnout. The two major parties are agreed on the main job of the National Assembly - to change the Constitution and voting system and vote for its own abolition, leaving power with the Legislative Assembly and the directly elected president. Bad weather also influenced the turnout.
Nonetheless the result must be judged as the first formal reaction by voters to the Lien and Soong visits. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of President Chen Shui-bian performed rather better than had been expected, with 42.5 percent of the vote. Add in the 7 percent of the fiercely pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union and the forces most skeptical of Beijing appeared in a small majority. Against that, Lien's Kuomintang mustered 38.9 percent and Soong's People First Party a mere 6.1 percent. Assorted independents got 5.4 percent.
Though the People First Party may also have suffered from its opposition to constitutional changes that will work against small parties, Soong's poor showing could be seen as especially significant. The mainland-born populist and longtime presidential aspirant had just returned from a meeting with President Hu Jintao of China. The two claimed to have brokered a new deal using the catchphrase "Two Sides, One China," with an agenda for direct transport links and a free-trade deal between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. They backed a return to the so-called 1992 consensus on acceptance of the One China principle, the interpretation of which is more important than the phrase itself. Chen was quick to reject this so-called "breakthrough."
On his visit to the mainland, Soong had been more effusive than Lien in emphasizing the ethnic brotherhood across the strait. This may also have reminded voters that most of them are descended from people who migrated (illegally) from the mainland generations ago and did not retain the same ties as those who arrived when the Kuomintang was defeated on the mainland in 1949.
The strong DPP showing also came in the face of widespread opinion that President Chen had badly mishandled the Lien and Soong visits, flip-flopping between lukewarm endorsements of their intent to ease cross-strait tensions and criticism of their pronouncements on the mainland. Chen had himself used Soong to send a private message to Hu.
Chen's ambivalence reflected the difficulty any Taiwan president has in maintaining the middle ground of politics while not alienating his core support. Although Chen was much criticized by pro-independence groups within the DPP, the election suggests that core support for the party did not erode. On the other hand, Lien and Soong may have to note that playing to the mainland and international galleries is not a big vote winner at home. However much a majority favors trade, peace and the status quo, the concept of Taiwanese identity (not necessarily synonymous with independence) runs as strongly through local veins as their mainland birth runs through those of Lien and Soong.