Wed, Dec 15, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan's election upset: now what?

By Ralph Cossa

Predicting election results in Taiwan can be embarrassing for politicians and pundits alike. In March, the polls predicted that President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁)would be soundly defeated; he won (albeit by the slimmest of margins).

Last week, all signs pointed to a victory by Chen's pan-green coalition -- Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) plus former president Lee Teng-hui's (李登輝) even more independence-oriented Taiwan Solidarity Union -- in the Legislative Yuan elections. But this time it was the pan-blue's turn to squeak through: the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)/People First Party coalition won 114 seats in the 225-seat legislature; its first victory in the past four major elections.

Parties rarely lose (or win) elections based on a single issue or factor, but it seems clear that Chen's brand of "in your face" politics, which in the past successfully fueled nationalistic sentiments (and votes) backfired this time. While claiming to still honor his pledge not to formally change the Republic of China's (ROC's) name -- a de facto declaration of independence and deliberate crossing of China's presumed red line -- he has continued to push this envelope, by "informally" substituting Taiwan for the ROC every chance he gets. He even pledged that next year's Quixotic quest to join the UN would be under the name Taiwan.

Swing voters reportedly saw his recent directive that "Taiwan" would henceforth be used instead of "China" in the title of state-owned firms as unnecessarily antagonistic; many feared serious economic and political repercussions from Beijing. Meanwhile, Chen's pledge to change the name of Taiwan's overseas missions caught Washington by surprise, causing another public rebuke condemning this "unilateral change in the status quo" (thereby offering the Bush administration a rare opportunity to call someone else a unilateralist).

But, will Chen see the election as a warning to scale back his confrontational approach? If he chooses not to, the results are pretty easy to predict: an increase in cross-strait tensions, a continued deterioration in Taipei's relations with Washington and continued political deadlock at home.

What's harder to predict are the consequences if Chen decides that a kinder, gentler approach is in order. Will Beijing accept the olive branches or dismiss them as "insincere" (its favorite retort)? Will Washington let bygones be bygones? And will the pan-blues decide to put the interests of Taiwan ahead of their own desire to get even? There is little cause for optimism in all three instances.

The new leadership in Beijing has demonstrated remarkable flexibility and creativity in its approach to many other issues, but seems locked into its previously unsuccessful "just say no" policy regarding any overture coming from Chen. The election setback opens a window of opportunity to move forward, now that Beijing can rest somewhat easier that no major constitutional change is likely during the remainder of Chen's term. But whether or not Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) will be bold enough to put forth a new initiative remains to be seen, as is Chen's willingness to accept such an offer if made.

While it remains easy to find staunch Taiwan supporters in Washington, US President George W. Bush seems increasingly fed up with Chen's antics. Witness his public rebuke last December during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's (溫家寶) visit and the most recent pointed criticism against Chen's name-change initiatives. (Taipei's assertion that it was merely trying to "avoid creating confusion in the international community" insults the intelligence of even its most ardent supporters.)

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