Taiwan’s opposition licks its wounds

For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com 

TAIPEI – Sunday’s presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan saw Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou and his Kuomintang (KMT) triumph. Ma convincingly defeated his main challenger, Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), while People First Party (PFP) contender James Soong emerged as a distant also-ran.

In the election for the Legislative Yuan – parliament, Ma’s KMT secured a comfortable majority, taking 64 of the 113 seats in

parliament to the DPP’s 40. Although opinion polls painted the presidential race as neck-and-neck, the incumbent romped home comfortably with 51.6% of the vote while his DPP challenger secured 45.63% and Soong just 2.77%.

Tsai seems to have somehow lost votes on the home stretch, likely due to concerns that she would tinker with Ma’s cross-strait policies with disastrous results. Soong’s disappointing performance played a role as he was expected to tap deeply into Ma’s voter base to the benefit of Tsai.

With the public’s will expressed so unequivocally, it seems Ma and his government will enjoy a four-year term without major adversaries to be reckoned with – outside the KMT. The results have thrown the DPP into a deep crisis, with the party seemingly fighting a losing battle.

Whatever the reasons for these results, Taiwan will have to live with them. A page has been turned, and it is clear that Tsai’s familiar face won’t be on the scene. In line with DPP tradition, she immediately announced her resignation as chairperson on her defeat and will step down on March 1. A charismatic rising star to fill her shoes at the DPP is conspicuous by his or her absence.

In an interview with Asia Times Online, Chen In-Chin, a professor at Taiwan’s National Central University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Government, explained what other tremendous difficulties the DPP faces.

“If the DPP ever wants to return to power, it must take the secret alliance between Washington and Beijing seriously. Because those two have plotted a trade-off to control Taiwan”, he alleged.

Chen argued that during the campaign period, the US repeatedly intervened to help Ma and in turn Beijing, to keep Sino-US relations on an amicable trajectory.

Chen singled out the visit to Taipei just two days before the polls by Douglas Paal, a former de facto US ambassador to Taiwan. Paal told the Taiwanese public that Ma’s Beijing-friendly cross-strait approach was the only path forward for the island.

Chen pointed to other events to back up his argument. “During her visit to the US last year, Tsai penned a letter to US President Barack Obama. In it, she tried to assure him that if elected, she wouldn’t provoke Beijing. But now it has been found out that Obama forwarded this letter to the KMT.”

This textbook example of realpolitik applied by Washington for the sake of gaining Beijing’s concessions on the many other issues the two have frictions over, such as North Korea and disputed waters in the South China Sea, have not only spoiled Tsai’s electoral chances this time around but also created a potentially insurmountable obstacle for the DPP’s future, according to Chen. He believes the party will be forced to break with a staunchly pro-independence fringe that alienates the crucial moderate vote.

“That Tsai’s attempt to satisfy both the independence-leaning and moderate party wings went wrong is signaled by the fact that the [fiercely pro-independence] TSU [Taiwan Solidarity Union] won three seats in the new legislature; they had none in the old. These seats were directly taken from the DPP.”

Chen predicted that the TSU would make its hardcore pro-independence voice heard vociferously in the legislature, and that this will be detrimental to the DPP as the moderate public might not bother to differentiate between the two anti-unification parties.

“China has very cleverly reached this deal with the US as it leaves very little scope for pro-independence currents in the DPP. The party will have to ponder a lot about this unless it accepts eking out an existence as a protest movement,” Chen said.

In terms of cross-strait relations, after having jointly achieved Ma’s re-election, this US-Sino cooperation won’t make headlines again any time soon, Chen believes. Since Chinese President Hu Jintao will be busy arranging the Chinese Communist Party’s transition of power scheduled for September and Obama will be focused on his re-election bid for November.

“Until then, for both Beijing and Washington, the fewer events and developments related to cross-strait issues, the better.”

On the domestic front, Ma’s clear win means he will not need to introduce any major reforms, Chen said. However, he believes Ma will face considerable challenges when composing and managing his cabinet. As in Taiwan politics there is no such a thing as a shadow cabinet introduced by presidential candidates, it’s not year clear who Ma will select and whether current premier and vice president-elect Wu Den-yih will play a role.

“Ma has to be careful with personnel decisions. There are fierce power struggles between Wu and the mayors of New Taipei City, Eric Chu, and Taipei, Hau Lung-pin. Also, Ma tends to prefer technocrats for cabinet posts, but if he is seen as promoting them too enthusiastically, he’ll get in trouble with the party heavyweights.”

Chen explained that the “technocrat model” much favored by Ma already failed once. When Ma took office in 2008, he initially appointed renowned academics for cabinet posts, such as Liu Chao-shiuan, who became his premier, irrespective of the KMT sub-factions’ wishes.

Liu with his cabinet resigned en masse in 2009 as scapegoats for Ma’s extremely poor handling of Typhoon Morakot. In order to pacify the KMT sub-factions, Ma had then to appoint as his premier Wu Den-yih, who only earned a bachelor’s degree and worked for a local newspaper before starting his political career.

“This will be Ma’s dilemma when facing European and US debt crises and global slowdown this year; on the one hand he needs highly skilled figures for ministerial posts for efficiency, on the other he has to mind his arrangements for succession and keep power struggles within the KMT from erupting.”

As examples of technocrats who Ma might seek to get into his cabinet, thereby risking snubbing party careerists, Chen singled out Vice Premier Sean Chen, an expert on finance and economics, for the premiership. He also noted the current Minister for Interior Jiang Yi-Huah, who according to Chen is a close friend of Ma’s, and also former Government Information Office Minister Su Jun-pin, who was sent by Ma to the DPP-stronghold Tainan to win a legislative seat. Su, who presumably made the sacrifice to help the KMT in the south to canvass presidential votes, expectedly failed but coordinated closely with Ma during the campaign.

“As Ma must appease Wu Den-yih, it will be telling how he manages to arrange figures like these. If he succeeds in bringing them into appropriate positions, it means he is wearing the breeches in his government. If not, it shows Wu is”, Chen said.

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