What's At Stake in the Taiwan Elections

 Skrevet av Michael Turton - Publisert 10.03.2008 kl. 12:45 (Oppdatert 10.03.2008 kl. 15:55)

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It is Presidential Election time in Taiwan again. Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) and Frank Hsieh of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are squaring off on March 22 in another hard fought struggle for the future of the island.

Ma Ying-jeou

KMT Presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou
strides across a campaign poster.
This year the KMT offers one of the most popular politicians on the island, Ma Ying-jeou, as its candidate. Ma, widely portrayed as good-looking and charming, benefits from the KMT's superior media and public relations skills. The KMT also dominates the legislature, and is highly localized, controlling a decisive majority of local political offices as well as influential clan and patronage networks that bring together powerful local families, temples, local businesses, and local organized crime gangs. The media, especially the television media, are also strongly pro-KMT. Ma enjoys the support of the bureaucracy, the military, the police and judiciary, and local big businesses, and international businesses and chambers of commerce. Because of these advantages, Ma looks like a shoo-in to the local conventional wisdom, and although the local newspaper polls are known to wildly unreliable, all of them have him in the lead.

Ma was born in 1949 in Hong Kong, the son of a KMT bureaucrat. He came up, not as a working politician, but by being groomed by KMT party elites for higher office during the martial law period, serving as secretary to the dictator Chiang Ching-kuo, and later as minister of justice, although he never passed Taiwan's bar. He was removed from the post, apparently after antagonizing party elites through a crackdown on corruption. His political career went into abeyance, but in 1998 he was elected mayor of Taipei (and again in 2002), his only experience in electoral politics. Although popular among the rank and file, Ma is often viewed as weak, even by his supporters.


DPP Presidential candidate Frank Hsieh speaks at a local election rally.

Frank Hsieh

Frank Hsieh of the DPP enjoyed a successful career as a lawyer before entering politics through defending a group of pro-democracy activists arrested after a protest in the city of Kaohsiung on International Human Rights Day, Dec 10, 1979. Hsieh's vice-presidential candidate, Su Tseng-chang, was also a lawyer in that case. When the pro-democracy side formed the DPP in 1986, Hsieh was part of it, and has since prospered. Hsieh has been a legislator and premier, but his real claim to fame was his yeoman work as mayor of Kaohsiung, where he made substantial inroads into the city's incredibly polluted environment. This contrasts with Ma, whose eight years as mayor of the capital of Taipei were not marked by visible major progress. Hsieh is often seen as a dynamic public speaker, energetic and witty, and a capable administrator.

As the DPP candidate Hsieh faces a number of problems that to many appear insurmountable. The DPP is relatively impoverished -- the KMT is one of the richest political parties in the world. Its local networks, so crucial to gaining votes in Taiwan, are less well-developed than the KMT's. The party's public relations work is often inept. For most of the last seven years the Government Information Office (GIO), a key agency in getting word out on government successes, has been in disarray. The Hsieh campaign has categorically refused to give interviews to the international media, meaning that in the news that enters Taiwan from the outside, Ma, and Ma's views, dominate. There is a widespread perception, especially in the capital, that the DPP has run a confused and lackluster campaign this time around.

Additionally, the current President, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP, is widely disliked on the island and abroad. During the second term of his administration, a series of corruption scandals hit the President and people close to him. The conventional interpretation of this is that while DPP corruption is nothing compared to the vast morass of corruption that is the KMT, the public tends to accept corruption in the authoritarian side as natural, while having no tolerance for corruption in the democracy and reform party. The DPP has also alienated many of its supporters, ignoring or pushing out groups with social justice platforms, allying with corrupt local factions to gain votes, and following policies (such as building coal-fired electricity plants) that belie the green image it has cultivated.

Flags decorate a truck at a KMT legislative rally.

Of interest to Americans is the China policy of the two sides. The KMT has long called for the lifting of restrictions on Taiwanese investment in China (according to a recent Morgan Stanley report, Taiwanese investments there now exceed US$200 billion). Ma has promised to bring in Chinese tourists, commence direct flights between Taiwan and China, and lift restrictions on investment in China. Local businessmen and foreign chambers of commerce strongly support these actions.

{ad align='right' size='250'}Frank Hsieh of the DPP also supports these actions. In fact the DPP has long wanted them, but China has demanded that Taiwan agree it is a province of China as a precondition for talks, a demand the DPP, a pro-independence party, has consistently rejected. Hsieh is likely to move more slowly on opening to China, both because of his pro-Taiwan views, and because China is far less likely to cooperate with him.

The key plank of the KMT platform is that Taiwan's economy is a mess and only the KMT can save it by opening to China. Veteran observers of political rhetoric will recognize the cargo cult economics that underlies this claim. Objectively, Taiwan's economy is booming, growing 5.7% last year, with unemployment under 4%, and the second leading exporter to China. However, the KMT's claims on the economy have credibility for locals because household incomes have been stagnant in Taiwan for the past several years, especially against inflation. Part of this is due to the movement of factories to China beginning in the early 1990s, and the transition to knowledge-based industries at home, but it is also due to the KMT's ruthless blocking of budgets in the legislature. By holding down flows of money for public construction, it has lowered incomes around the island.

While many foreigners see how China and Taiwan have integrated their economies in the technology industries, few understand that the two are also intimately connected in the local political economy as well. Taiwan's domestic economy runs on gravel, and it is dependent on imports from China. In 2006, when China cut off gravel exports to Taiwan, the price of concrete skyrocketed, stopping projects all over the island, and putting people out of work.

An image of a god being carried into a temple in Taiwan. Temples play a key role in local politics, and temple associations are often a route to power for local politicians. In the last legislative election a candidate was indicted for vote buying after making donations to 16 temples in order to get them to support him.

There are several interpretations of what a Ma victory will mean for the US and US-China relations. The Bush Administration dislikes Chen Shui-bian and has overtly supported the KMT in this election.

The Bush Administration, rightly or wrong, is deeply irritated with President Chen, and by all indications, would prefer to see Ma Ying-jeou as President. Bush Administration officials apparently believe that Ma would keep Taiwan quiet while the Administration obsessively pursues defeat in the Middle East. This view is prominent in many analyses of Taiwan's position in US-China relations.

A second view that also has currency in US policy circles is that Taiwan is "free-riding" on US defense commitments. This is pushed by CATO Institute writer Ted Galen Carpenter and others. This crowd argues that Taiwan should be abandoned to its fate. Carpenter's work is not marked by any depth of understanding of Taiwan, but his strident phrasing is often found in the media.

Those of us on the pro-democracy side find Ma deeply worrisome. Both Hsieh and Ma are often portrayed in the press as pragmatists, but Ma is, in my view, and many knowledgeable on Taiwan affairs, a pro-China ideologue. During the whole of the martial law period Ma opposed the lifting of martial law, opposed the repeal of Article 100, the notorious anti-dissident law, and not once spoke out in defense of democracy. Ma's lack of open and passionate commitment to cultivation of democracy in Taiwan, coupled with his party's the blocking of government and political reform in the legislature, do not auger well for Taiwan's democratic future.

That alone would be a problem, but a key development almost totally unmentioned in the foreign media is the KMT's close cooperation with Beijing. Contacts between the two sides began in the mid-1990s and blossomed when the DPP took the Presidency. According to reports, in 2000 it was the KMT that advised Beijing not to conduct any talks with the Chen Shui-bian government. More recently, when the current KMT Chairman was elected last April, his first act was to go to Beijing.

These growing links between Beijing and the KMT suggest that a Ma victory would mean that Taiwan would move rather rapidly into Beijing's orbit. Indeed, when Ma was in the US last year, conservatives excoriated him for the threat to US security arrangements they felt he represents. At the Establishment Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), however, Ma was feted. It is unclear whether (1) the Bush Administration does not really get how close Beijing and the KMT are, or (2) simply does not care. A Beijing-orbiting Taiwan would also present grave problems for Japan and our longstanding alliance with that nation, where the Japanese Right has already begun to see Taiwan as a the dress rehearsal for the tactics Beijing plans to use against Tokyo.

None of these developments bodes well for the future of democracy in Taiwan or in East Asia. A Ma presidency may well create a state in Taiwan that is a democracy only in name, for Beijing has long wanted to see Taiwan's democracy neutered. For Taiwan advocacy groups and supporters on the Hill, a Ma presidency would present a formidable problem. As Gerrit van Der Wees of FAPA, the major Taiwan organization in Washington DC, observed last week, if Ma wins, should the organization continue to push for high-level visits from Taiwan officials? Or should they wait until they have a more pro-Taiwan President?

(SIDE NOTE: I'd love to present what progressives think of a Ma presidency, but lefties remain mired in Cold War views of Taiwan as a neocon stalking horse to be used against China. Hence, Taiwan has ceased to exist as a thing in itself, a tragedy for both sides.)

The Su-hua Highway. To the immense disgust of environmentalists, both parties support shoving a four lane highway through this magnificent natural area, to link the east coast with the highway system, expand tourism, and most importantly, permit smoother transport of gravel for the insatiable construction-industrial state that drives Taiwan's domestic political economy.

What would a Hsieh victory mean? When Chen Shui-bian came to power, he was also viewed as pragmatic and conciliatory. He acquiesced to US demands that he honor the Status Quo by promising the famous Five Nos, an action many people here saw as selling out, and which he later regretted. Marginalized at home by the legislature controlled by the pro-China parties, and hamstrung by the weaknesses of his position (the ROC Presidency is far less powerful than the Imperial Executive of the US), Chen's positions hardened over time -- just as the Bush Administration positions also became more rigid. Mutual distrust and dislike developed, not in the least due to Chen's habit of taking action without informing the US beforehand, but also due to a cabal of officials within the Administration and the State Department who actively detest Taiwan. Fortunately most of them have moved on.

Hsieh, a pragmatist and can-doer, who has a natural preference for compromise, is likely to undergo a similar though slower evolution. Unlike Chen, whose party controlled enough of the legislature to block many of the sillier KMT initiatives, Hsieh will have no legislative backup at all -- the KMT has overwhelming dominance there -- and confronts a China that is in a strong position on the Taiwan question. China has become adept at getting the foreign media to adopt its views, and its claims that Chen "provokes" Beijing are often treated as visceral reactions rather than what they are: a well-thought-out policy designed to marginalize Chen and Taiwan, and give it leverage over the media and foreign governments. The latest furor over Taiwan's UN referendum, which China can block any time, since it controls a veto in the UN, is a good example of this. Whatever happens with Hsieh's presidency, he is the standard-bearer of a party strongly committed to the US alliance.

From the US side, welcome developments continue. Two of the island's staunchest proponents, Randy Shriver and Dan Blumenthal, are close to McCain, while one of Obama's key aides, Dennis MacDonough, has good knowledge of East Asia. Think tanks on both the Republican and Dem sides have called for revision of US-Taiwan relations, in a pro-Taiwan direction. Support in Congress is overwhelming. However, the Iraq War continues to overshadow all other foreign policy issues, meaning that Taiwan has trouble gaining traction in Congress. Thus, as with so many other issues facing the US, ending the Iraq War is the first step to new directions in US-Taiwan relations.

Further views by Michael Turton can be found at his blog, The View from Taiwan blog.

This article can also be found at DailyKos.

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