Fri, Dec 17, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Taiwanese voted with their wallets

By Richard Halloran

Prudence suggests that not too much be read into the surprisingly inconclusive results of Taiwan's legislative election, because, fundamentally, little has changed and the confrontation with China will persist in jeopardizing the security of East Asia. After the balloting last weekend, President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its allies ended up with only one more seat, 101, than they had before in the 225-seat legislature. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and its partners ended up with 114 seats, one less than before. Independents held the rest.

The outcome was a surprise to Chen, political pundits and much of the foreign press, all of whom had predicted that the pan-green coalition would gain enough seats to have a majority. When that didn't happen, Chen resigned as chairman of his party to take ritual responsibility for its failure.

Much speculation focused on Taiwan's conflict with China, which has been summed up in the phrase "cross-strait relations." Conventional wisdom said the attitude of the voters on this issue would determine their choices.

As the dust has cleared, however, reasons for the outcome have begun to emerge and they seem to have more to do with Taiwan's internal politics than with cross-strait relations. The adage that in a democracy "all politics is local" seems to have been proven once again.

Consequently, the split government means Chen will continue to run into obstacles in his plans to revise the Constitution, use the name "Taiwan" instead of "Republic of China," reorganize the government and make other moves intended to keep Taiwan separate from China and nudge it toward independence.

The president, who has run into acute political adversity before, may trim his sails but is not likely to change course. Chen and his predecessor Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) have molded a strong sense of Taiwanese identity even if a small majority think the status quo ought to be preserved for now.

The restrained initial response from Beijing suggests that the communist government there was caught by surprise and is uncertain about what the outcome meant. Even so, China's Xinhua news agency contended that the vote demonstrated "the unpopularity of the leader's obstinate separatist stance."

"The voters were alarmed by Chen's rash lurch toward independence, especially his plan to change the name of Taiwan's overseas representative offices," Xinhua argued.

Those offices are quasi-embassies in nations, including the US, that lack diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

In light of that stance, there's not much hope that Beijing will soften its policies toward Taiwan. The authorities apparently believe their hard line helped to bring about Taiwan's election results and therefore they should stick to it and move on with their military buildup. Washington was cool toward the election results after having cautioned Chen that he was going too far too fast and might provoke a military attack from China. Despite those cautions, many senior officials in the Bush administration are reported to favor a Taiwan separated from China and possibly independent.

US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, asked to comment on the Taiwanese election, told reporters: "They had a successful election. That's a good thing. We're glad to see it. What they decide to do within their political system now on some of these issues is going to be decided in Taiwan."

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