Monday, January 14, 2008

Independence party takes a pounding

Taiwan's legislative election result sharply reduces pro-independence party's clout

By Jonathan Adams
The Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 14 2008 (writer's edit)

Watching the election returns come in on TV early Saturday night in her Taipei office, Hsiao Bi-khim – the pro-independence party's point person on foreign affairs – was visibly upset. In district after district, her party was getting pummeled by its rival, the China-friendly Kuomintang.

But asked whether her party's China stance had hurt it at the polls, Ms. Hsiao had a strong message for Beijing. "Independence had nothing to do with this election; the election was based on local issues – whether a highway stops in a district, whether a park is built," said Hsiao. "It would be misleading for China to think that independence is out of the picture."

Taiwan independence may still be in the picture, but the party that champions it -- the Democratic Progressive Party -- has been sharply cut down to size. On Saturday, the DPP picked up only 27 seats in a 113-seat legislature, compared with the KMT's 81.

The KMT's win means that it now has a strong enough majority to recall the president and block any moves to formalize Taiwan's de facto independence through constitutional change. If it wins the presidency on March 22 – by no means a sure thing – the KMT would end eight years of DPP rule and seal its domination of Taiwan politics.

The resurgence of the KMT could usher in a significant thaw in cross-Taiwan Strait relations with China, especially if it goes on to win the presidency in March. That's because a more powerful KMT is widely expected to forge closer economic ties and restart political talks with Beijing. "The future of cross-strait policy will be more conservative and moderate with this legislature," said Taipei-based political analyst Hsu Yung-ming.

But the potential thaw shouldn't be overstated. The KMT will be constrained from getting too cozy with Beijing by the fact that most Taiwanese want to keep the political status quo, under which Taiwan is a de facto independent, democratic country. Unification would simply be a nonstarter.

Beijing prefers a dominant KMT in Taiwan, but it's unclear just how welcoming it would be of KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou. Mr. Ma has openly criticized China's "anti-secession" law and human rights record, and demanded it withdraw missiles aimed at Taiwan before any political talks can start.

Still, it's expected that the KMT would move quickly on at least two measures long awaited by Taiwanese businessmen and others: direct cross-strait flights (now, passengers must touch down first in Hong Kong or another third location) and the lifting of restrictions on China-bound investment.

The DPP's candidate, Frank Hsieh, also supports closer economic ties with China, but analysts say Ma would make more progress. "If Ma wins, the increasing trend of cross-strait human and economic exchange will be quite positive," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing. "But if Hsieh wins, China will take a 'wait and see' attitude – there will be no progress in cross-strait relations for at least two years."

It's too soon to call March's election, despite the KMT's decisive win Saturday. In fact, the pro-independence party's overall share of the vote actually increased from the last legislative elections in 2004. That it ended up with so few seats reflected the new, smaller legislative system that uses winner-take-all districts instead of the old multimember ones – a change that favors the KMT.

Presidential elections, however, typically have higher voter turnout and focus on Taiwan's sovereignty – both of which tend to help the DPP. "Presidential elections aren't a choice about candidates or a party," says one KMT insider. "It's a choice about national identity: Do you think Taiwan is a country or not?"

The DPP's proud, unqualified "yes" to that question has helped it mobilize voters in past presidential elections. But this time it will have to surmount long odds and widespread discontent over its performance.

In a working-class Taipei suburb Saturday, voters vented a long list of complaints about the ruling party. "It's done a lousy job," said a fruit vendor. "[Pro-independence president] Chen Shui-bian is still cheating the common people," said her friend. "The DPP has been in charge for eight years, and the economy keeps getting worse," said a noodle-shop customer.

Strolling out of a poll station in flip-flops, Pan Cheng-hou said he still preferred the DPP, but had voted for a KMT candidate to be his legislator because "he'd be better for this area."

Such parochial concerns, gripes over the economy and the new districting system best explain Saturday's result, analysts say. But the consequences remain: with the pro-independence party sidelined in the legislature, the independence movement is sidelined as well – at least for the next four years, and likely longer.

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