A “shellacking” is how US President Barack Obama described his party’s treatment in the US midterm elections last week. Angered by economic hardship, unprecedented in recent US history, including high unemployment, mass foreclosures and a widening gap between the rich and poor, US voters turned out in numbers high for a non--presidential election year to punish the ruling party, giving Republicans control of the House of Representatives and significantly trimming the Democratic majority in the Senate.
Not that any of this was a surprise. A poor economy is the curse of any incumbent and in this case, Americans had plenty to be unhappy about. Nor, however, did last week’s results spell the end of Democratic hopes for 2012 — perhaps the opposite. Many Republican victories were close, and this with traditional Democratic supporters such as blacks and youths remaining at home. More importantly, as the new leaders of the House, Republicans must now share responsibility for the economy. Clearly neither party has an all-clear for the next election; voters have put both on notice.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have each tried half-heartedly to spin the results of the US elections to their advantage in the Nov. 27 special municipality elections, with little success on either side. Of course, the Nov. 27 polls have no direct bearing on the legislative balance of power. And with Taiwanese experiencing nothing remotely like the economic conditions in the US, there seems little reason to expect similar fireworks.
Yet, if “it’s the economy, stupid” may not pertain in the current campaigns, there are growing reasons for Taiwanese voters to take it seriously as a way to send a similar message to ruling and opposition parties.
One of these messages stems from the US midterm results themselves. With the change in congressional numbers, it is expected that Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will head the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee. A staunch supporter of Taiwan, Ros-Lehtinen has spoken against President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and urged the US to move forward with arms sales to Taiwan. Should she be successful, Ma may be forced to do more than pay lip service to the need for new fighter jets, which, should they finally arrive, would test relations with China already under fire because of rising nationalism across the Taiwan Strait and Beijing’s aggressive behavior toward others in the region.
A strong showing by KMT candidates on Nov. 27 could strengthen Ma’s cross-strait position and give him the confidence to decline the US fighters. It would further cripple the DPP’s chances for a comeback in 2012. By contrast, a DPP success could well do the reverse, supporting the party’s position on sovereignty and nudging it toward alignment with those, including the US, increasingly looking for ways to contain Chinese power in the region.
Happily, none of these scenarios will likely occur. If Taiwanese voters turn out in fair numbers for the special municipality elections, they will probably send the same political message that Americans sent. Even if one party comes up with more wins, the races will be close, with all bets off for 2012.
Such an outcome will force party strategists to think less about fixed agendas and more about practical solutions that serve the best interests of the people. It would not only place pressure on the DPP to develop its own cross-strait dialogue, but would also caution the KMT on its dealings with China, which many feel have exposed Taiwan to undue economic and military risks. Best of all, close elections in three weeks would return balance to party politics, which has been lacking since 2008.