Analyses of the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) loss in the media and other international forums appear to consist of a melange of banal observations of Taiwanese politics, application of voter behavior models more appropriate to Western political systems and, worst of all, an abundance of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) talking points. This discourse is both distant from the reality of local politics and thoroughly lacking in evidentiary support. As a result, it has little, if any, explanatory power.
To understand what actually happened on Jan. 12, it is necessary to first grasp some simple numbers. In the 1998 legislative elections, the total pan-blue vote exceeded 5.3 million votes. In 2001 it again exceeded 5 million. In 2004, 600,000 pan-blue voters stayed home and the pan-blue vote total plummeted to 4.5 million. This year, it once again exceeded 5.0 million. Similar figures for the DPP were 2.9 million, 3.4 million, 3.4 million and 3.6 million respectively.
Looking at the numbers, three things stand out. First, the anomaly that cries out for explanation is 2004, when 600,000 pan-blue votes went AWOL. Second, the DPP's successes in 2001 and 2004 can be attributed to the split in the pan-blue vote between the KMT and the People First Party, with the DPP actually outpolling the KMT in both cases. Third, this suggests that the real key to KMT dominance was the simple fact that it smoothly eliminated the PFP (and the New Party) and for the first time united the entire pan-blue vote. While former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) publicly attacked the DPP to support the hopeless Taiwan Solidarity Union, few noted that People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) maintained a studied silence as his party disappeared into the KMT.
These developments, plus the winner take all districts that were artfully gerrymandered in favor of the KMT, explain how the KMT obtained 80 percent of the seats with just 60 percent of the vote. There is no evidence that voters switched to the KMT because they were sick of President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) ideological positions or because the DPP was incompetent. Instead, the numbers limn the structural features of legislative election voting patterns -- the DPP reached all its potential voters in legislative elections, a figure somewhere around 3.6 million, and the KMT swallowed the entire pan-blue legislative vote of more than 5 million. Were it not for the "reformed" districts, everyone would be talking about what a typical legislative election this was -- how much it resembled 1998 and 2001.
Why was the KMT so successful? The correct local political model for Taiwan is not the US or Europe, but Japan. What Taiwanese voters value most are not policy issues but personalized service. This places incredible demands on the time and finances of legislators, who must constantly show up at constituent weddings and funerals, and are regularly called on by voters to handle personal problems such as auto accidents or criminal charges.
This system of particularistic politics, fueled by flows of cash both licit and illicit from the central government, gave the Liberal Democratic Party 38 years of single-party rule in Japan. In Taiwan, voters choose candidates because they are successful in presenting themselves as candidates who would provide personal service and bring home fat wads of cash from the central government. Naturally, the party with the best connections at the local level -- where 90 percent of local officials are KMT -- and with the most lucre -- the KMT outspent the DPP 5-1 -- wins in the elections.
Note that in such political systems, the effect of ideology at the local level is nullified. Nor do Taiwanese voters care about "corruption" -- which, in particularistic politics, is more or less the result of the legislator doing what he is supposed to do. So long as voters care more about personalized bacon than about good public policy, there is little that a smaller party can do to win back the legislature.
What can we expect for the future? This is not the kind of electoral system where the party on the outside can regroup and then stage a comeback in the next election. Thus, the Western-centric claim that "this will be good for the DPP" is badly misguided.
The fact is it will be good neither for the DPP nor for Taiwan. First, each legislator is now serving at least twice as many people -- which means he or she needs twice as much cash. Second, studies of Japan show that as one-party dominance of the legislature rises, spending on particularistic services also rises. Both of these observations suggest that corruption in Taiwanese local politics will undoubtedly increase. Furthermore, because constituents will only have one legislator rather than several as under the old system, local political and business networks will have no choice but to re-orient themselves around that legislator, since that is who will bring them home the bacon they need to survive. That will only further cement the dominant party's grip on local politics.
In sum, we are looking at the first step in a potential permanent majority -- as KMT heavyweights themselves have hinted with their recent positive remarks on one-party rule in Singapore. How the KMT handles this remains to be seen -- victory may stress the KMT so much that it will fall apart -- but then it has always been an ethnic coalition lashed together by flows of money. And now, again, it has unlimited access to those flows.
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