The people of Taiwan put a damper on “mainland fever” last weekend. In elections to create a special assembly that would amend the island’s constitution, President Chen Shui-bian’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a plurality of votes. The results are more an endorsement of the status quo, though, than a mandate for Mr. Chen. More significantly, it is a signal to Beijing that its attempt to outflank the president and court opposition politicians has not won the hearts and minds of Taiwanese. Cross-strait relations remain stuck, as neither the government in Taipei nor the one in Beijing seem prepared to take steps to meet the other halfway.
Constitutional amendments are aimed at modernizing Taiwan’s political system, such as cutting the size of the legislature in half, changing election rules, extending terms of legislators and requiring the use of referendums to approve all future changes to the constitution. Since the amendments passed the legislature with backing from both the DPP and the main opposition party, the KMT, passage in the special assembly is a given.
The DPP won 42.5 percent of the vote; the KMT took 38.9. The margin may not have been large, but it was significant. The KMT had won a majority in parliamentary elections held in December. More significantly, the ballot came on the heels of a historic trip to the mainland by KMT Chairman Lien Chan, which boosted his popularity to record levels. Mr. Lien’s meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao — which Mr. Hu attended in his capacity of secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party — were intended to signal to the Taiwanese people that the mainland could deal with the KMT even though relations with President Chen remain frozen.
China opposes any constitutional amendments, fearing that they are attempts to begin loosening the ties (such as they are) that bind the island to the mainland. It also opposes all referendums, worrying that such initiatives will eventually lead to a popular vote on Taiwan’s independence, a step that China has said could lead to military conflict. Mr. Chen has tried to reassure the mainland and said that any referendum will not address issues that affect sovereignty, such as Taiwan’s name, flag or national anthem.
Despite those obstacles, Mr. Chen’s party prevailed. The Taiwanese people were not intimidated; nor did the sight of Mr. Lien and Mr. Hu exchanging handshakes convince them that their future was better safeguarded by a KMT government. Indeed, given the stakes in this election — the composition of an assembly to approve legislation already passed — there was no better opportunity to signal voter preferences without having to pay a price for voting their hearts instead of their heads. In that light, the vote was a real victory for Mr. Chen.
That said, the president should not take the results as a mandate to press ahead with a radical agenda. First, turnout was abysmal: a mere 23 percent. Some blame poor weather; others credit confusion surrounding the purpose of the assembly; and still others say apathy was the culprit. No matter what the cause, the low turnout takes some shine off the results.
Second, the DPP and its “pan-Green” ally the Taiwan Solidarity Union, a pro-independence party founded by former President Lee Teng-hui, claimed only 49 percent of the votes cast. The “pan-Blue” alliance of the KMT and the pro-unification People First Party won 45 percent. In other words, Taiwan is deeply divided. Opinion polls show that most Taiwanese may favor independence, but given the potential price — conflict with the mainland — they are content to maintain the status quo of de facto independence.
The question now is whether the governments in Beijing and Taipei can live with that status quo. In the past, Mr. Chen has taken defeat badly and moved reflexively to reassert his authority, which has usually increased tensions with China. Following the mainland visits of Taiwan’s two leading opposition politicians, the president might have been tempted to do just that. These results show Mr. Chen cannot be ignored or marginalized by Beijing’s “united front” politics and should quell the temptation for him to regain the initiative in island politics and cross-strait relations.
While dissatisfied with the results, Beijing will accept them. It will claim that the final tally is no mandate for the president — whom it intensely dislikes and distrusts — and continue to deal with other island politicians to show that Mr. Chen is the problem in cross-strait relations. It is a formulation for stagnation and paralysis. No progress is possible in cross-strait relations until the two governments talk. Until then, it is probably not too much to ask that both restrain from making the situation worse.
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