Newsweek

Taiwan leans away from China

December 12th, 2006

By Jonathan Adams


Taiwan’s elections revealed an unexpected groundswell of support for the Independence Party, dashing hopes for reconciliation with the Mainland.

Dec. 12, 2006 - There’s a phrase in Chinese for Taiwan’s political divide: lan tian, lu di (or “blue sky, green ground”). The north is the base of the China-friendly Kuomintang and its allies, the “blue” camp, which traces its heritage to the mainland and dreams of a reunified China. The south is the stronghold of the pro-independence “greens,” who emphasize the island’s distinct culture and history, and seek to cement its independence.

Heaven and earth have rarely been so far apart. Last Saturday, the island’s two main camps split elections that were widely seen as a stage-setter for the key 2008 presidential vote. In the south, the pro-independence party won the mayor’s office in Kaohsiung by a nose, in a race that’s still being disputed. In the north, the KMT won, but for the Taipei mayor’s seat, the “green” candidate, Frank Hsieh, did far better than expected and took a respectable 41 percent of the vote.

Both results surprised observers, who had expected a KMT sweep in the wake of corruption scandals that have bedeviled the island’s pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian. Indeed, the KMT had already been seen as likely to win back the presidency in 2008, but Saturday’s results could put these prospects in serious jeopardy.

If the election presages a KMT loss in 2008, the repercussions will be felt far beyond Taiwan’s shores. Business leaders, both Taiwanese and foreign, have had high hopes for KMT’s much-hyped chairman Ma Ying-jeou. Ma has vowed to expand cross-strait economic links to revive the island’s stagnant economy. A Ma victory in 2008 would also come as a relief for Beijing, which would like nothing better than to see the pro-independence party driven from power just ahead of the summer Olympics. And Washington, after more than six years of trying to restrain Chen’s nationalism, would welcome the more moderate Ma, who promises to keep all quiet in the Taiwan Strait. Saturday’s election is a “major defeat for Ma,” said George Tsai, a professor of international relations at Taipei’s National Chengchi University. “This result shows that if the KMT wants to win the next elections, they have to side with or respond to Taiwan identity—otherwise they have no chance.”

That could be a tall order for Ma. To be sure, he’s still popular on the island, and recent accusations that he misused mayoral funds have only slightly sullied his anti-corruption image. But the Hong Kong-born Ma is seen by some as out of touch with the laobaixing—the common people—and with southerners. He speaks stilted Taiwanese, the local dialect and language of the street. And he’s a product of Taipei, where descendants of the mainlanders that fled China with the KMT in the late 1940s still dominate.

Saturday’s elections have shown that Ma may also be out of touch in his vision of Taiwan’s accommodation and eventual unification with China—and it could turn out to be his political Achilles heel. Ma backs a cool version of his party’s traditional “greater China” nationalism. In the south—and apparently in much of the north, too—Taiwanese identity and ideology are still important. “[Now] people will say that Ma Ying-jeou’s charisma can’t cross the Jhuoshuei River and reach into southern Taiwan,” said Lo Chih-cheng, a political analyst at Taipei’s Soochow University.

While the KMT has no strong alternative to Ma for 2008, his poorer-than-expected showing on Saturday provides a boost to two strong potential presidential candidates on the pro-independence side: Hsieh, who did better than expected in Taipei, and Su Tseng-chang, the gruff, no-nonsense premier who is a son of the south and boasts broad government experience. Despite their party’s declining support in the last two years, Saturday’s result shows it can’t be written off: its faithful—particularly in the south—tend to rally to its side in times of perceived crisis.

Meanwhile, the results are expected to embolden Chen to press forward with one of his pet proposals: sweeping constitutional revision. Although there’s little chance of success—revisions must be approved by three-quarters of the legislature, which is controlled by the opposition—Chen’s pursuit of reform may ruffle China’s feathers. “The mainland is on guard,” said Xu Shiquan, the vice president of the National Society of Taiwan Studies in Beijing. “If Mr. Chen pushes forward his claims through so-called ‘constitutional reengineering’ despite warnings, this would be serious business.” That’s a typical line from China—and one we could be hearing a lot more of in 2007.