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Taiwan's Election Circus


November 15, 2001

From the Asian Wall Street Journal

Taiwan's upcoming legislative elections haven't gotten as much international attention as the presidential race last year, but they are probably even more critical for the island's economy and future security. President Chen Shui-bian has blamed his government's poor economic record on the opposition Kuomintang's majority in the Legislative Yuan, and is asking the electorate to give his Democratic Progressive Party a mandate to carry out a legislative program. The island's economic woes - the stock market has lost half its value since Mr. Chen took office - mean he faces an uphill struggle.

The contest is further complicated by shifting loyalties among leading politicians. For instance, former President Lee Teng-hui has started a new party, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, which right now supports President Chen. But it could end up taking votes away from the DPP, and some people suspect Mr. Lee is motivated by a selfish desire to remain a power broker. Meanwhile, the voters who once sided with the KMT again find their loyalties divided, with the popular former Provincial Governor James Soong turning his breakaway People First Party into a force to be reckoned with.

Meanwhile Taiwan campaigning is as colorful as ever. KMT Chairman Lien Chan, who as a presidential candidate made America's Al Gore look animated, has now developed a sense of humor, mocking the DPP with rhyming slogans and puns. Mr. Chen just published a new book, "The First Voyage of the Century," which has been released chapter by chapter, many of them devoted to attacking political rivals. Predictably, the staged release has kept the press busy analyzing the president's barbs and the victims' responses in successive news cycles.

All this offers temporary distraction from the main issues, which are Taiwan's economy and cross-Strait relations. The two are increasingly linked, as the report of the presidential Economic Development Advisory Council showed last August. The council told Mr. Chen that the "go slow" policy of restricting Taiwanese investment in mainland China should be scrapped, arguing that that Taiwanese companies need integration with China in order to maintain their competitiveness. The president has agreed to follow this, but he faces criticism from many citizens who are worried that the migration of factories across the Taiwan Strait will cause unemployment back home to soar. It is already at 5.2%, double what it was when he took office.

There are a few more cards that Mr. Chen can play to appeal to native Taiwanese voters: resentment of "mainlanders" - those who came over to Taiwan from China in 1949 - and loathing for the communist government in Beijing. Mr. Chen orchestrated a row with China over who would repretent Taiwan at the leaders' summit at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation in Shanghai last month, and then allowed it to escalate until finally he sent nobody high-level in his place. Television pictures of the mainland hosts rudely shouting down a Taiwanese delegate infuriated viewers back home.

Successfully setting up Beijing to appear in the role of bully can only benefit the president politically with his nativist base in the rural south, while the KMT, which has been more conciliatory and holds out the hope of eventual reunification, get painted as sell-outs. What's remarkable is Beijing's willingness to play its appointed role. In the last two presidential elections, China has threatened the island's voters with dire consequences if they voted for Lee Teng-hui and then Chen Shui-bian. This only caused Taiwanese to rally around them. Just last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan was playing into the DPP's hands again, ranting that "I have never placed importance on Chen Shui-bian's words, because I hold him in contempt."

So much for the two sides using entry into the World Trade Organization to forge a rapprochement anytime soon. Regardless of how the Dec. 1 legislative election goes, Mr. Chen has more than two years left to serve as president, and if mainland China won't open direct transportation links Taiwan will have to forgo many economic gains. But the damage done to his popularity by a weak economy could be outweighed by the benefit he receives from appearing to stand up to Beijing.