Saturday's legislative elections, in which the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won less than one-fourth of the seats, were a disaster for the party and its worst result in legislative elections since Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) became president in 1988.
Saturday's results raise two important questions. First, why did the DPP do so badly? Second, how will the legislative elections result affect the presidential election of March 22?
There are at least three answers to the first question. The turnout of less than 59 percent -- the lowest for legislative elections since 1972 -- indicates widespread alienation among Taiwan's voters. The numbers attending campaign rallies were also quite low. In the past, when speakers at rallies rhetorically asked: "Right or Wrong?" the audience would shout "Right!" During this campaign no one responded. In addition, several vote captains -- on both sides of politics -- whom this writer has known for a long time, sat out this election.
A second factor explaining poor support for the DPP is that the DPP government has been blamed for everything. Admittedly, the government had a number of failures and sometimes the party did not explain its achievements. In addition, the government has been blamed even when it was not responsible. One friend told me that the DPP was responsible for high oil and gasoline prices. When I questioned this, suggesting that the cause was the high global price of oil, my friend replied: "Well, at least the government should have made me feel better."
Incumbents often incur the anger of the voters after a couple of terms in office. In Australia, last October we turned out the conservative Howard government after 11 years, and last month South Koreans voted for a conservative new president after 10 years of progressive presidents. Similarly, the Democrats won both houses of the US Congress in 2006 and a Democrat appears likely to replace the Republican President George W. Bush this November. So, at least part of the Chinese Nationalist Party's (KMT) success owes to a vote against the DPP as incumbents.
Third, many analysts (including this writer) argued that the single-member constituencies would create more moderate legislators as candidates would be forced to move to the center to gain sufficient votes. Thus, Li Ao (
In addition, both parties, but especially the KMT, nominated party "hacks" for their legislator-at-large lists. The most obvious case is the KMT's nomination of Chiu Yi (
In addition, in district races between a man and a woman, the KMT tended to give the district seat to the man and put the woman on the legislator-at-large list because half of party nominees for the latter had to be women.
How will the DPP's legislative election disaster affect the presidential election? While the KMT has won a morale-lifting victory, the two elections are very different and the result will probably be very close.
First, the legislative elections have been almost entirely local. Candidates have spoken of their contributions to individual schools, roads and flood prevention. There has been virtually no discussion of such national issues as identity, relations with China or relations with the US, Japan and other major democratic countries.
Second, when the campaign between presidential candidates Frank Hsieh (
Though both candidates are moderates in their respective parties, some clear differences will emerge. Hsieh and his co-runner Su Tseng-chang (
Third, with a landslide victory to the KMT in the legislative elections, DPP supporters -- as well as some swing voters -- will fear the KMT's almost total control of the political system in the event of a KMT victory and may rally to support Hsieh to provide some controls over the KMT legislature. On the other hand, some voters may feel that electing Ma will end fractious relations between the executive and the legislature.
Finally, the issue of identity could prove crucial. Ma won the KMT chairmanship on a platform of reform, but after being elected he tended to talk to the old Mainlanders and did not implement any reforms. While Mainlanders, as the minority who have lost their formerly privileged positions, have led the way in "ethnic voting," some ethnic Taiwanese are now questioning whether they can vote for a Mainlander for president. This feeling, too, will help Hsieh.
One final conundrum remains. What will be the role of President Chen Shui-bian (
Fairly or not, many believe Chen's campaign efforts in the presidential election have been counter-productive. Will he step out of Hsieh's way and allow Hsieh's more moderate approach to shine through in the campaign?
If so, Taiwan's next president could be Frank Hsieh. If not, then Ma Ying-jeou will succeed Chen.
Bruce Jacobs is professor of Asian languages and studies and director of the Taiwan Research Unit at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
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