Fri, Feb 02, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: An independent Taiwan in 2008?

It falls to us to put Taiwan-watchers overseas on notice about a development that will have lasting repercussions.

International media outlets do a good job of reporting on events in Taiwan, as long as there is a sexy cross-strait or business angle.

But when it comes to pedestrian issues, such as political reform, most news outlets fall short. Correspondents for international wire, print or broadcast media who approach their overseas editors with a story lacking a "China angle" have a tough fight on their hands.

This is why almost no major media outlet has reported on the cross-party compromise that was reached on Wednesday over changes to electoral districts. It doesn't sound like a compelling story.

This would only be slightly irritating if it were not for the fact that perceptions and policy are in part driven by media coverage. So when the international media simply do not bother to report on significant changes to a country's political situation, it has a deleterious effect on the international community's understanding of, and policy toward, that country.

When policymakers from, say, the US are left in the dark about basic aspects of Taiwan's society and political system, they cannot be expected to formulate meaningful policy.

Much of the think-tanking and analyzing that goes on in Washington is mere regurgitation of what is reported in major media outlets. Only a handful of specialists possesses in-depth knowledge of Taiwan. Meanwhile, most "experts" who write or comment widely on the US' foreign policy toward Taiwan, China or East Asia have only superficial knowledge of Taiwanese politics.

This is not always a serious problem. However, it becomes worrying when the one-dimensional portrait painted by the international media begins to lead policymakers toward erroneous assumptions.

An example of this is how the international media generally treats Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Media outlets often use terms such as "shoo-in," "most likely candidate" and "heir apparent" to describe Ma's chances of becoming president next year. Ma will likely win the KMT's presidential nomination, barring some unforeseen scandal. But it is shallow and misleading to assert that the KMT has the 2008 election in the bag.

Election returns over the past decade in no way support the conclusion that the KMT is going to glide to power next year. The electorate is almost evenly split between the KMT and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and voters seem largely unperturbed when a scandal rocks their chosen party.

But with all of the fawning over Ma, a person outside of Taiwan could be forgiven for thinking that his presidency is inevitable.

Which brings us back to the development that the international media has ignored.

The changes to the legislature and electoral districts will have a profound effect on the political system. No one, not even the major political parties, is able to predict what kind of legislature the December elections will bring to power.

First, half of all sitting legislators will lose their jobs, as the legislative seats will be slashed from 225 to 113. Next, many popular and prominent figures will be left on the street, because politicians must now compete with each other for first place, rather than being guaranteed a seat by earning a high number of votes. In addition, small political parties face a fight for their survival.

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