TAIWAN GETS READY TO VOTE

For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com

Punters put DPP ahead in three-horse race

By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI – The countdown to Taiwan’s combined presidential and legislative elections is on, and there’s little doubt that it will be a thrilling one.

On January 14, voters on the island will have the choice between incumbent Ma Ying-jeou of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), Tsai Ing-wen of the anti-unification opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and the People’s First Party’s (PFP) James Soong Chu-yu, who like Ma is pro-eventual unification but threatens to tap into Ma’s voter base to the benefit of Tsai.

Their respective appeals: Ma can highlight his historic achievement of having turned arch-enemy China into the guarantor of the island’s prosperity; Tsai promises social justice; Soong

portrays himself standing above political feuding for the common good.

Results of opinion polls in Taiwan vary notoriously according to the pollsters’ political biases. However, National Chengchi University’s Exchange of Future Events, which doesn’t ask people who they vote for but instead how much money they would bet on a certain outcome, on December 18 published its findings, according to which on average participants bet that Tsai can expect 51.9% of the votes, Ma 41.6% and Soong 8.6%. The exchange has a history of relatively high accuracy in previous elections.

Needless to say, Beijing dreads a Tsai win.

Aces up Ma’s sleeve
That Ma finds himself in a position fearing for his re-election is surprising indeed at first glance. His administration not only oversaw stunning gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 10.8% last year, signed 16 agreements with Beijing, which institutionalized cross-Taiwan Strait relations and slashed hundreds of tariffs on Taiwanese exports to China, but also turned decades-old fears of devastating military conflict across the strait into a somewhat distant matter.

Instead of making plausible to the Taiwanese electorate that a DPP win would cause cross-strait relations, and in turn also the economy, to become a certain mess, his campaign staff expended most of their effort on accusing Tsai Ing-wen and figures around her of crookedness.

As their latest “masterpiece”, the Ma team dug up the “Yu Chang case”, claiming that when serving as vice premier Tsai once aided a biotech start-up that her family subsequently invested in, only to be found out for doctoring dates on documents they presented to implicate Tsai.

In the meantime, the DPP’s candidate has been vociferously demanding a reasonable share of the big China-business cake for the low and middle income classes. Tsai’s calls fall on fertile ground as despite lucrative cross-strait ties, the unemployment rate stands at around 4.3%, significantly higher than those of export rivals Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore, and per capita income refuses to rise over US$20,000. The wealth gap is increasing, and average house prices remain at 9.2 times annual household income.

Beijing as clumsy as ever 
Observers have all along anticipated that when things turn really dicey for Ma, Beijing will step in; but this time around not like it did in the mid-1990s, it launched ballistic missiles into waters off Taiwan, and defiant voters reacted by handing pro-independence candidate Lee Teng-hui a landslide victory.

In the run up to the coming elections, what was expected was some rather spectacular show of goodwill, such as an announcement on a symbolic withdrawal of some military assets targeting Taiwan or the nod to a free trade agreement Taipei wishes to sign in order to better compete with South Korea, its main trading rival.

Yet, this notion was somewhat belied on December 16. In his speech at the Great Hall of the People, China’s Vice president Xi Jinping, who is all but certain to become the nation’s next leader, didn’t promise the Taiwanese new goodies if they vote for Ma but instead – indeed much like the high-ranking Chinese Communist Party (CCP) figures of the past – resorted to making clear what’s in stock for the island if not.

“If the 1992 consensus is denied, negotiations across the strait cannot continue and all the agreements made in the past cannot be fulfilled. Cross-strait relations will return to the volatile situation of the past,” Xi said as quoted by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.

According to the so-called 1992 consensus, both mainland China and Taiwan belong to one China, but both sides may have their own interpretations what that China is. The DPP has all along denied its existence and sees it as the result of a CCP-KMT conspiracy meant to achieve unification as it basically would rule out Taiwanese independence for ever.

If as president Tsai Ing-wen were to refuse the 1992 consensus and if, as president, Xi sticks to his word, the impact on Taiwan’s economy would be significant. A blow would be dealt to Taiwanese exporters, banks, tourism and agriculture sectors and China-based Taiwanese businesspeople and industrialists, among others. The already relatively high jobless rate would likely rise, and maintaining GDP growth at its current annual pace of 4.5% would be very wishful thinking.

According to Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, Xi’s threat is regrettable, and not particularly surprising.

“It is Beijing’s way to help ensure Ma will win the presidential election,” Tsang said in an interview with Asia Times Online, adding that it might backfire as it could be seen as an attempt to interfere into Taiwan’s politics by many.

Tsang suspects that it wasn’t a coincidence that Xi was chosen to articulate this warning. “He will be the next leader, and the message is that this represents the medium to long-term view of Beijing. Its reiteration should eliminate any scope of misunderstanding in Taiwan that after Hu Jintao hands over, the new administration in Beijing may relent.”

But, according to Tsang, Xi’s threat does not automatically commit Beijing to reverse all agreements right away should Tsai win.

“The message to Taiwan’s electorate is that there is no alternative to Ma’s approach, and that unless Tsai should accept ‘the 1992 consensus’, a Tsai administration will result in cross-strait tensions returning in due course, but that there is scope to pre-empt this. Simply put, Beijing tells the Taiwanese to elect Ma or get Tsai to embrace ‘the 1992 consensus’.”

Asked how high the chances are for either outcome, Tsang replied: “Ma may be re-elected, but Tsai will not embrace ‘the 1992 consensus’.”

Lame lawmaking; new star rising
On January 14, the Taiwanese will not only elect president and vice president but also 113 legislators. Historically, the DPP has never obtained a legislative majority, and even if Tsai might harbor realistic hopes to become Taiwan’s next president, it is not likely her party will gain the upper hand this time, either.

Hsu Yu-fang, an associate professor at National Dong Hwa University, told Asia Times Online what the election results will bring about for the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s parliament) and for the domestic political landscape in more general terms.

“If Tsai wins but the KMT holds a legislative majority, there are two possible scenarios. The PFP could become a key fraction so that we will see increasing DPP-PFP cooperation. But if the PFP fails to win seats, there possibly could be a repeat of the lame Chen Shui-bian era.”

During his tenure from 2000 to 2008, the DPP’s Chen government faced a hostile legislature, routinely leading to near standstills; Hsu’s prediction for a likewise outcome this time around is therefore bleak.

“In order to get back into power, the KMT must boycott the Tsai administration’s policy making. This will then lead to stagnation.”

Hsu subsequently took on how certain scenarios would affect the standings of Ma and Tsai within their respective parties.

“If Ma wins narrowly, he can still lead the KMT though things won’t be as rosy for him as they have been in the previous three years. His influence is to decrease, but he will still have power because of his ability to cultivate successors.”

If Tsai loses by a small margin, but manages to expand the DPP’s total vote count, she can run again in four years in the next elections, Hsu said.

“But if she loses by a 500,000 margin or so, she’ll have to give up her DPP leadership position; because in the party’s succession disputes, Tsai would become the prime target of challengers within the DPP.”

Regardless whether the Taiwanese see Ma or Tsai occupying the top job in 2012, Hsu sees a rising star in Taiwan politics.

“Premier Wu Den-yih [Ma’s running mate for vice presidency] is very confident to run himself for the presidency in 2016. His attitude will not only affect the KMT’s inner-party succession struggles but also Ma’s leading if Ma was to be re-elected.”

Hsu holds that Beijing would appreciate Wu’s rise more than those of other prominent KMT figures even though he currently is not regarded as a strikingly popular politician.

“Wu Den-yih is an authentic ben sheng ren [of ancestry that immigrated to Taiwan hundreds of years ago as opposed to those who came with the retreating KMT after the Chinese Civil War in 1949]; he’s KMT old guard; and unlike the prominent middle-aged KMT cadres such as New Taipei City mayor Eric Chu or Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin, he has no personal dealings with Americans.”

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