The dramatic results of last month's legislative elections and anticipation for next month's presidential election have sparked a great deal of commentary on the implications for the future of the country. Much of the commentary is highly personalized, critiquing the current president and assessing the dramatic change of fortunes among top political leaders.
Most international observers anticipate a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) victory in the presidential election and perhaps an enduring majority favoring KMT rule in Taiwan, bringing with it an era of greater domestic and cross-strait stability. There are of course no guarantees in politics. You can never tell what might happen on a particular president's watch or how well he will govern. And, as US primary candidates are learning, there is only one poll that counts -- the actual vote.
Taiwan's presidential race is a contest between two personalities, both representing a break from the current administration, and each trying to bridge divisions within his own party. No matter who wins, a form of divided government is likely to continue in Taiwan, but different from the form that dominated President Chen Shui-bian's (
If Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) surprises experts and wins the presidency, he will benefit from rejuvenated enthusiasm within his party, but will face the challenge of governing with an opposition supermajority in the legislature and perhaps shaping the composition of his Cabinet. If the KMT again loses the presidency, despite its significant standing in the legislature, it will likely have to face up to a dramatic reassessment of the party's leadership, identity and approach to working with an opposition president.
Many experts anticipated that such a reassessment or realignment might occur following the 2000 election, especially with Chen's appointment of a KMT premier, but instead a more raw form of partisan competition ensued.
If, as many anticipate, KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou (
It appears that intense dislike for Chen, more than Ma's management skills, is the glue holding the KMT coalition together. If Ma becomes president, he may benefit from the marginalization of the opposition party, but be surprised by bureaucratic and political divisions within his party.
The Republic of China Constitution offers no assurance of presidential authority. It was written for an era of one-party rule dominated by a single leader. But is Ma a leader of that stature? The KMT premier, legislative speaker, party chairman and perhaps others could very plausibly claim to control significant portions of the party's and the country's political agenda. It is reasonable to question whether KMT leaders really have broad consensus on economic security strategy, national defense (military and diplomatic) and personnel appointments. Thus, even with nominal party unity across the government, a new form of divided government is quite plausible.
In fact, more than the ups and downs of the DPP and Chen, KMT unity and disunity has been the dominant factor in Taiwanese politics for the last decade, and will remain so for some time to come. The divisions among former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), former KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰), and People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) directly contributed to Chen's surprising victory in 2000 with only 39 percent of the vote. The struggle for leadership and identity of the party left the KMT just shy of victory in 2004, even with Lien and Soong on the same ticket.
The traditional KMT base, dominant when unified, turned out for the election last month and seems likely to do so again next month. But how long will the unity last before competing agendas within the party once again divide it to where the opposition has a real chance to compete? It certainly will not be sustained if the KMT again loses the presidency. And even with victory, supermajorities bring high expectations and great pressure, powerful enough to break strong leaders and big parties.
Finally, as Chen's term comes to an end, it is natural to look back on his tenure and attempt to put it in some form of historical context. It will require the passage of time to allow for objective assessment of the Chen presidency. Above all else, Chen appears driven by the mission of ensuring that no man, party or outside power is ever again able to assert control over Taiwan's people without their free and direct consent.
Twenty years from now, if Taiwan's democratic way of life is preserved, the major political parties continue to reform and remain competitive and the people of Taiwan have practiced when and how to effectively use their right to hold a referendum, then Chen's tenure as president may be seen in a very different context.
What is certain is that Chen will go down in history as the first to govern Taiwan in an era of divided government. No one imagined in 2000 just how divided it was and would remain throughout Chen's time in office. Opposition leaders vigorously challenged the legitimacy of Chen's election victories, especially in 2004, and engaged in high-profile and highly partisan cross-strait diplomacy. These actions undermined the stature and influence of the office of president. A case can be made that many difficulties were brought upon Chen by his own conduct, but it is also true that the structural and partisan obstacles he faced would have challenged the most gifted politician.
Whichever party wins next month, one can only hope that the outcome will be accepted as legitimate and opponents will not again allow partisan differences, personal agendas or the agony of electoral defeat to unreasonably obstruct the agenda of the next directly elected president.
Stephen Yates is president of DC Asia Advisory, a Washington-based consulting firm, and former deputy assistant to US vice president Dick Cheney for national security affairs.
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