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Democracy Taiwanese style

Taiwan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) announced on 19 April 2011 its decision to hold next years presidential and legislative elections concurrently for the first time.

Ostensibly made to save money and streamline the crowded electoral cycle, many see darker motives behind a move made at the behest of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT).

As a specialist in political communications in Greater China and a keen observer of Taiwanese elections and campaigns, I am keenly aware that Taiwan has long been a polity where political trust is at a premium. Opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporters recall the KMT’s long rule during the pre-democratic era; KMT supporters are quick to speak of DPP ‘dirty tricks’.

When the DPP won the presidency in 2000, it was followed by two terms of poisonous inter-party relations that did neither side credit and set back the consolidation of democracy. Legislators became better known for pugilism than passing bills; the DPP-held presidency and KMT- controlled parliament were totally unable to work together. Public support for democracy and turnout in non-presidential elections declined alarmingly.

Things have calmed down since the KMT re-took the presidency in 2008, but mistrust remains high and conspiracy theories retain currency. Fed up with the ideological tenor of recent years, Taiwanese voters accepted KMT candidate Ma Yingjiu’s promise to improve both the economy and relations with China. In his three years as president, Ma has received many plaudits, mainly outside of Taiwan, for improving relations with Bejing. Ma’s policies have however failed to reinvigorate the economy and his approval ratings hover uncomfortably around 30%.

The DPP is historically the weaker of the two parties. Chairperson Tsai Ying-wen recently won the DPP’s nomination in a hard-fought primary. Taiwan’s first woman presidential candidate holds an LSE PhD, speaks fluent English and is seen as a moderate on China, with experience heading the Mainland Affairs Council. Opinion polls show Tsai and Ma currently neck and neck. With a coherent China policy to ensure recent gains are not lost (traditionally the DPP’s weak point) and a plan to fix the economy  Tsai is a serious contender. A lot can happen in nine months of course.

It was in this context that the CEC announced that the two elections would be combined. The decision, to some, smelled of conspiracy. If this was an important issue for the Ma administration why wait until now to push it through? The practical details looked fishy too. The combined elections will be held in mid-January 2012, a week before Chinese New Year, the major social event of the year. This will probably benefit the KMT. First, several hundred thousand business people based semi-permanently on the mainland returning for New Year will be able to vote. These voters favour stability in cross-Strait relations —a major advantage for the KMT. Second, voters must vote in person in the district of their household registration. Holding the election just before New Year will force (largely DPP-inclined) people who work in the capital Taipei, but are registered in the South , to make two trips in short succession. If they are going to sacrifice one arduous trip it is unlikely to be the one linked to the major holiday of the year.

If merging the elections is a KMT ploy, it is not however certain to succeed. The DPP has fewer financial resources than the KMT, but in a combined campaign the DPP could concentrate its finances. Furthermore, Tsai Ing-wen is a strong contender, and DPP legislative candidates might benefit from their association with her. The DPP has never been able to secure a majority in the Legislative Yuan, despite being favoured to do so on occasion. But after merging the two elections it is plausible that the DPP could win control of both. It is this scenario that gives rise to the biggest conspiracy theory of all.

The constitution dictates that the President’s inauguration take place on May 20th. In past elections this meant there was a 60-day handover period. In 2012, should Ma lose, he would be a lame duck for over four months. That worries the conspiracy theorists, who imagine much worse scenarios than the violence that accompanied previous KMT losses. Would the KMT provoke sufficient civil disturbance that China would intervene? Could the KMT be planning to sign a peace deal with the CCP, handing Taiwan back to the motherland? These questions are being asked, in all seriousness.

If such scenarios seem far-fetched, the outcome of the 2012 elections whatever it may be is likely to have a defining impact on the direction of cross-Strait relations. The impending campaign will therefore be of vital importance, not just to the Taiwnese but to the whole region.

Jonathan Sullivan

Published inInternational PoliticsTawain

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