Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian had a disappointing weekend. His Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was unable to win a majority in parliamentary elections held Saturday. The result is likely to be continuing gridlock in Taiwanese politics, as different parties control the presidency and the legislature. More troubling, the results will encourage more intransigence from Beijing. The outcome will support those in China who argue that their government’s hard line against Mr. Chen has checked his political popularity and forced Taiwanese voters to opt for moderation. Given Mr. Chen’s history of responding emotionally to defeat, relations across the Strait could worsen.
Mr. Chen’s DPP has made steady gains over the last decade. He used the party as a springboard for presidential election victories in 2000 and 2004, and it has gradually increased its seats in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan (LY). Although the DPP won 87 seats in the last ballot, making it the largest single party in the LY, it was unable to claim a majority even in combination with its ally, the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), an unabashedly proindependence party established by former President Lee Teng-hui.
Instead, the opposition Nationalist Party, the KMT, and its allies won 114 of 225 legislative seats — an increase of three — to retain control of the LY. The DPP and its ally won 101 seats. The DPP and the KMT both increased their share of the popular vote, with the KMT picking up 11 additional seats and the DPP, two. The losers were the more radical parties: The TSU lost one of its 13 seats, and the prounification People’s First Party, a KMT ally, lost 12 seats, tumbling from 46 to 34. That should take some of the sharp edges off Taiwanese politics.
Mr. Chen accepted the results with good grace, and he called for “reconciliation and cooperation.” He called on all parties to “unite Taiwan, stabilize ties across the Taiwan Strait and work together for economic prosperity.” Taiwan needs that sort of political maturity. Both major parties have put opposition above national interest. The result has been political gridlock while the economy deteriorated and tensions with China and the U.S. increased. It will take cooperative effort by both major parties to get Taiwan back on track, but the two parties have little history of working together.
The KMT continues to protest the results of the March presidential race — which may have turned on a mysterious assassination attempt on Mr. Chen during the final days of the campaign. For his part, the president has a history of reacting emotionally to defeat: When he was outmaneuvered in the LY last year on legislation permitting referendums, he hastily exploited a loophole in the bill — permitting so-called defensive referendums, even though the move infuriated China and the United States. What surprises does Mr. Chen have up his sleeve after these disappointing election results?
Taiwanese voters appear uncomfortable with Mr. Chen’s policies and statements, and would like him to move back toward the center. Most opinion surveys show that an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese favor the status quo rather than proindependence policies. They want recognition of their island’s status and their many impressive economic and political accomplishments, but they are not willing to risk conflict with the mainland.
The Chinese government is ready to exploit that fear. Beijing is convinced that Mr. Chen aims to declare independence before his term expires in 2008. It has said that there will be no cross-Strait political discussions until Mr. Chen acknowledges the “one China” principle, a step that the president will not take. He demands talks without preconditions. Neither side is willing to budge and options are shrinking as each sees compromise as a victory for the other.
Beijing will use the election results to validate its hard line. China has stepped up its anti-Chen rhetoric since he won re-election in March, and the KMT win will be interpreted as a sign that Taiwanese voters are worried that the president is pushing too far, too fast. Given the ill will between Taipei and Beijing, neither side of the Strait is likely to compromise on its core concerns. The outcome of the vote then is likely to be gridlock — within Taiwanese politics and in cross-Strait relations.
Mr. Chen should now focus on his legacy. He has two choices. He can pursue the consolidation of Taiwanese democracy or he can push the independence agenda. The former requires compromising with the KMT, working on modernizing Taiwan’s political institutions and putting independence aspirations on hold. The latter may be the president’s longtime dream — and that of other Taiwanese — but it risks conflict and the destruction of much of what Taiwan has built in recent years. The choice appears easy.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.