HONG KONG — The electoral defeat of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan was expected, but the magnitude of the loss took everyone by surprise, including the DPP itself and the opposition party, the Kuomintang.
The election transformed the situation from one where the opposition had a razor-thin majority in the Legislative Yuan, or Parliament, to where it has more than a two-thirds majority. Hence, as of Feb. 1, the opposition party can in theory pass whatever bills it desires.
However, KMT party leaders are saying, wisely, that they will not abuse their power and will not seek to impeach President Chen Shui-bian, as they had repeatedly tried to do in the past.
The KMT is right to act with circumspection. After all, they did not win the election. The DPP lost it. Or rather, President Chen lost the election for the DPP by his posturing, by his pushing the envelope on Taiwan independence, by his defiance of both Beijing and Washington, and by his going so far as to remove the honor guards from the mausoleums of two late presidents, Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo.
Chen did all these things for domestic political reasons — to win the support of his political base, voters who are strongly in favor of Taiwan’s permanent separation from China. But it boomeranged on him. Many DPP supporters were so turned off by his political antics that they decided to stay home. The turnout of 56.6 percent was the lowest legislative turnout in 16 years.
By contrast, supporters of the KMT, having been out of power for eight years, were highly motivated to vote and did so in large numbers, delivering victory to opposition legislators.
Looking at the numbers, it is clear that the DPP and its voter base are still intact. Both parties are now gearing up for the battle that lies ahead: the presidential election March 22.
Both parties have analyzed the parliamentary elections and drawn appropriate lessons. “The KMT did not win the election because they are a particularly good party, but because the DPP had not done its job well,” said Frank Hsieh, the DPP candidate. “We heard and thank the people for giving us a warning and a lesson.”
Similarly, Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT presidential candidate, cautioned his people not to get too excited about their victory. He warned: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely. The KMT should remember this saying. If we are too arrogant with victory, we will lose the presidential election.”
Up to now, Hsieh had been handicapped by President Chen’s insistence on running the campaign. Now that Hsieh has replaced him as party chairman, things will be different. The DPP has, at least for now, rid itself of its biggest liability: Chen.
To be sure, Ma is substantially ahead in the public opinion polls. But it is not beyond the realm of possibility for Hsieh to catch up. Ironically, the lopsided KMT parliamentary victory may handicap Ma since voters may want to “balance” the political situation by giving the presidency to the DPP.
This may especially be the case if voters in the next two months see the KMT abusing its parliamentary majority. For that reason, Ma has emphasized that the KMT should maintain a low profile and not seek to impeach the president or amend the constitution, even though it can now do these things if it wants to.
If a Hsieh presidency should emerge, Taiwan will once again be gridlocked, with the presidency in the hands of the DPP and the parliament controlled by the KMT. The situation may not be as bad as before, since a Hsieh administration is likely to be much more moderate than the Chen administration. But it would still be bad.
It would be much better for Taiwan if there was a clean sweep, with the KMT being restored to executive power.
And when a Ma administration is formed, as is likely, it should seek to depoliticize Taiwan. The Chen administration has gone much too far in politicizing everything, from ethnicity to textbooks, in its attempts to rid Taiwan of any connection with China. It is time for Taiwan to get back to business and let politics take the back seat.
This is in the interest of all concerned — of the political parties, of Beijing, of Washington and, most of all, it is in the interest of the people of Taiwan.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator (Frank.firstname.lastname@example.org)