Fri, Feb 15, 2008 - Page 8 News List

The direction of Taiwanese politics

By Stephen Yates

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 (陳水扁) two terms in office.

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 (馬英九) wins the presidency, he will benefit from an era of unified party control of government not seen in Taiwan since the early 1990s. But the biggest question he will face is how long party unity will be sustained.

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.

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