Defeat presses Chen to ease up on China


HONG KONG — Lord Acton’s maxim that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” has just been proven true again in Taiwan, where the ruling Democratic Progressive Party — which had won power five years ago on a campaign promise to stamp out corruption — was swamped in recent local elections by the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) now under the chairmanship of Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou.

In the short space of five years, the DPP has been transformed from a party known for being clean to a party that faces numerous allegations of corruption.

The election results are likely to put pressure on President Chen Shui-bian to soften his anti-China stance and to lessen cross-strait tension, which has been high ever since the pro-independence Chen won the presidency in 2000.

During the weeks leading up to the Dec. 3 elections, Chen, as is his wont, made pro-independence speeches while supporting DPP candidates. The fact that the DPP won only six of 23 mayoral and county magistrate posts, while the KMT and its allies won the remaining contests, suggests that the “China card” that the president likes to play is losing its appeal to Taiwan’s voters.

Analysts believe that the DPP did poorly because the party’s image has been badly tarnished. Scandals include allegations of corruption in a subway project in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s major port, involving the president’s former deputy chief of staff, Chen Che-nan, and 17 others, including a former vice minister of transportation. They were indicted recently on charges of influence peddling, corruption, fraud and breach of trust.

The outcome is seen by many as a vote of no confidence in Chen. A recent survey by the United Daily News showed that his approval rating had fallen to an all-time low of 21 percent, having plummeted from 79 percent in June 2000, when Chen first assumed office (after the KMT had held power since the 1940s).

Even Ma, the KMT party chairman, said: “The KMT did not defeat the DPP. The DPP defeated itself.”

There were widespread expectations that, in the wake of this crushing defeat, the president would have to soften his China policies. However, the vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, You Ying-lung, declared that there would be no major change in cross-strait policies. “The municipal elections were not a referendum on cross-strait policies but just local elections,” he said.

Before the elections, the president had said he would have to “tighten” his policies on China if his party lost. However, Chen will surely face pressure to relax restrictions on interchanges across the Taiwan Strait rather than tighten them.

The president has alienated the business community, both local and foreign, with his anti-China policies, which hurt Taiwan’s economic prospects. Even during the campaign, he asserted that cross-strait relations should not be based only on economic factors and warned businessmen of the risk of doing business on the mainland.

The government had been dragging its feet to institute direct trade, postal and transportation links between Taiwan and China. Recently, the Chen administration had denied a visa to Chen Yunlin, China’s top Taiwan affairs policymaker, who had been invited to visit by the KMT.

Even the pro-independence newspaper Taiwan News called in an editorial for the government to take action. It pointed out that a recent poll showed that 47.8 percent of foreign companies were not satisfied with the government’s handling of foreign investment, and “topping their concerns was direct links with China.”

DPP chairman Su Tseng-chang has resigned to take responsibility for the election fiasco and Premier Frank Hsieh has offered his resignation. Only a few days earlier the two men had been considered the front-runners to become the DPP’s presidential candidate in 2008, when Chen will have to step down. Now both men have suffered a severe setback. KMT chairman Ma, on the other hand, has emerged as the biggest winner.

Beijing’s official China Daily summed up the views of analysts in Taiwan and in China by saying: “Chen Shui-bian and his ruling (DPP) face mounting pressure to improve ties with the mainland following the crushing defeat in local elections.”

Beijing had been hoping for such a development for the last five years. No doubt, Chen, albeit unwilling, will be forced to adopt friendlier policies toward China in the last two years of his presidency. Beijing would be wise not to press its advantage too far in view of the changed circumstances. After all, the outcome of the 2008 presidential election hangs in the balance.