Home / Articles / Taiwan’s Democracy and Lessons from Yet Another Election
Barely two weeks after President Bush pointed to Taiwan as an example of democracy that the PRC would do well to emulate, Taiwanese voters went to the polls yet again. This time, they selected county magistrates, county and city council members, and township heads. The outcome was a stinging defeat for the Democratic Progressive Party, ubiquitously if somewhat misleadingly referred to as Taiwan’s ruling party because of its control of the presidency and, in turn, the premiership and the executive branch agencies in Taiwan’s problematically mixed presidential-parliamentary system. The DPP won only six of the twenty-three county magistracies, down a third from its previous share. Fourteen seats—a gain of five—went to the Kuomintang, which is generally referred to as the opposition party despite its functional control of the legislature. The KMT’s allies in the “pan-blue” captured the remaining county magistracies. Below the magistrate level, the DPP and its “pan-green” partners fared even worse.
The balloting also marked another milepost in the rapid development and consolidation of Taiwan’s democracy. Although marred by charges of electoral irregularities and improper campaign methods, the “three-in-one” election produced results that won wide acceptance as valid. In these respects, the voting echoed the national legislative elections of a year earlier. And it continued the recovery from the divisive presidential election of March 2004 in which the outcome likely turned on the eleventh-hour shooting of President Chen Shui-bian and Vice President Annette Lu, and which brought charges from the defeated pan-blue camp asserting that the incumbents’ come-from-behind victory was illegitimate and the assassination attempt staged. This brief rattling of the system aside, the December 2005 election joins an ever-lengthening list of peaceful and legitimate elections that have been held since Taiwan’s democratic transformation began nearly two decades ago.
While one can count seats won and lost at the county and lower levels, or rounds of legitimate elections peacefully held, little else about the meaning of the recent balloting is certain. Conflicting interpretations abound concerning what motivated voters and what the outcome portends for foreign and domestic policy, constitutional revision efforts, upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, and party alignment and reform. Amid such uncertainties, the election nonetheless did reflect and extend two broad, and not-so-salutary, features of recent Taiwanese politics.
Politics Is Not Local
Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics is local. This month’s elections support a nearly opposite aphorism for Taiwan: local politics never remains local. It may well be that local issues were first in voters’ minds in this election. Key and closely watched races did focus on the attributes and actions of individual candidates, including allegations of vote-buying, health problems, improper disclosures of medical records, character assassination, the impropriety of a candidate’s attempt to reclaim a county office after a long absence in central government posts, and so on. Nonetheless, national and international issues loomed large. Accurately or not, the election was often depicted and seen as a mid-term referendum on Chen’s presidency and DPP rule and as a dry-run for national legislative elections in 2007 and the presidential election in 2008. National leaders from both camps—including President Chen, Vice President Lu, presumptive pan-blue presidential nominee Ma, DPP chairman and aspiring presidential candidate Su Tseng-chang, and Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang Jin-pyng—campaigned hard for magistrate candidates and effectively “nationalized” the races.
The election thus became, to a significant degree, about non-local issues, such as DPP governance, the merits of the KMT alternative, the economy, corruption and scandals, and money in politics. Any election that is cast in large part as a judgment on the Chen presidency and DPP government or as an expression of preference for future pan-blue or pan- green rule inevitably also implicates cross-Strait relations. While there is much room for disagreement about how different the mainland policies of the DPP or KMT really are, the two principal parties and their respective allies have been at pains to differentiate themselves from one another on mainland relations, with each accusing the other of irresponsibility toward Taiwan’s interests. A vote for either pan-blue or pan-green therefore has to be read as a vote that is in part about cross-Strait policy.
Moreover, national party leaders explicitly brought questions of mainland policy into the county elections. The high-profile visits to China by former KMT chairman Lien Chan and People First Party chief James Soong came after the late 2004 Legislative Yuan elections, making the December 2005 contest the first significant occasion for the parties to seek voters’ endorsement or rejection of the pan-blue’s new approach to Beijing. In the months preceding the election, PFP legislators also pressed a “peace promotion” bill and pan-blue representatives backed budget measures that would have undercut the long-standing and DPP-favored Mainland Affairs Council as the institutional vehicle for cross-Strait policy.
During the campaign, Chen and other pan-green leaders pointed to such developments as showing that a vote for the pan-blue was, in effect, a vote to compromise Taiwan’s functional sovereignty and its interests more generally. Chen and Lee Teng-hui, former president and godfather of the pan-green Taiwan Solidarity Union, cast the election as a choice between the KMT’s position of collaborating with the PRC regime and the DPP’s position of protecting Taiwan. At the same time, pan-blue advocates argued that the Chen administration, unlike the pan-blue, was unable to make progress with Beijing on issues vital to Taiwan’s national interests and had a dangerous penchant for risky pro- independence stances.
Both sides tendered predictions and threats about the election’s fallout. The KMT’s Ma asserted that a pan-blue victory would force Chen to be more accommodating in cross- Strait policy; Chen responded that it could lead his administration instead to take a tougher line with the PRC. The administration later explained the president’s remarks as not a definitive policy shift but rather as a rejoinder to Ma’s provocation, an assertion of the administration’s vigilance should an emboldened pan-blue be overzealous in pursuing accommodation with Beijing, and an empirical observation based on the negative impact on cross-Strait relations of prior pan-blue victories or policy gambits.
This is not to say that the results of the county elections are primarily an expression of voter sentiments on cross- Strait issues. Rather, the injection of mainland policy into these local elections (1) showed how inescapable questions of mainland policy have become in Taiwan’s politics, and (2) raised the risk that the outside world-always focused on implications for Taiwan-PRC-U.S. relations would infer from the campaign new and unsettling developments in Taiwan’s China policies, or would perceive in the results a popular verdict on the two camps’ contrasting approaches to dealing with Beijing.
In both these respects, the 2005 elections faintly echoed the Legislative Yuan elections of 2004. That vote too was supposed to be about local issues. But this changed during the campaign’s final weeks. At that critical juncture, with the pan-green hopes for a legislative majority imperiled, President Chen intervened and energetically sought to rally voters in support of his administration’s cross-Strait positions. It remains far from certain that critical groups of voters cast their ballots on that basis, and the pan-blue did retain control of the legislature. Nonetheless, Chen’s intervention prompted the outside world—and especially U.S. observers—to view the elections through the “Taiwan sovereignty” lens that Chen deployed. It prompted a milder version of President Bush’s rebuke to Chen (warning Chen against unilateral moves to change the cross-Strait status quo) at his meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in December 2003.
The dynamic seems unlikely to abate for the early 2008 vote for president and the late 2007 vote for the legislature. The 2007 election, of course, parallels the 2004 elections, which saw the late turn to an emphasis on cross-Strait policy issues. Despite electoral district reforms that are expected to lead to a greater focus on local issues, there is little assurance that questions of mainland relations and policies will not intrude-not least because of the legacy of polarization that the 2005 elections reinforce and the shadow the looming 2008 presidential election will cast. Like all Taiwanese presidential elections, the 2008 campaign is likely to bring cross-Strait issues to the fore.
The 2006 elections for the mayoralties of Taipei and Kaohsiung may well exhibit a similar pattern. Like the 2005 county elections, they will be for posts one rung below the national level. Like the most hotly contested and closely watched of the county magistrate elections in 2005, the one for Taipei county, the two big-city mayor races are especially laden with national implications. Where the Taipei county magistracy was significant because it had provided a four-term green outpost in Taiwan’s blue north and because DPP Chairman Su was the retiring incumbent, the 2006 Taipei mayoral election will be for the post that presumptive pan-blue presidential candidate Ma will be vacating and that President Chen had held before him. Like Taipei county in 2005, Taipei city in 2006 will be an election for a swing district, one winnable by pan-green candidates despite its location in the blue north.
At the core of the pan-green heartland, Kaohsiung is a place where a loss would be a major defeat for the DPP and a repudiation of its performance and policies on a range of issues, primarily good governance but potentially China as well. And such a setback is conceivable, given the pan- blue’s ability to score occasional victories there and an ongoing scandal over a mass-transit project that has dogged the current, DPP city administration and that has its origins during the mayorship of current DPP prime minister and presidential aspirant Frank Hsieh.
As in most countries, Taiwan’s two largest cities, along with the urbanized Taipei county, are relatively cosmopolitan places where foreign and national policies typically are thought to be more salient for voters. Given this and the mayoral elections’ closeness to the 2007-08 electoral cycle, these elections will be scrutinized for their implications for national politics and, thus, cross- Strait policy.
One factor that contributes to the tendency for the politics of cross-Strait policy to pervade local elections is the high frequency of elections in Taiwan. This “election overload” is also a troublesome feature of Taiwanese democracy that the 2005 county elections have underscored.
Problems of the Perpetual Campaign
A saying attributed to Chinese peasants during the 1930s and 1940s held that the Japanese killed too much, the Nationalists taxed too much, and the Communists met too much. Taiwan today suggests an addendum: the democrats vote too much.
The density of elections with national scope or significance is striking. Since March 2004, Taiwanese voters have gone to the polls to choose a president, consider a pair of “defensive referenda” concerning possible weapons acquisition policies and terms for cross-Strait relations, elect a legislature, empanel a National Assembly to adopt constitutional amendments, and select county magistrates and councilors and lower level officials. After a brief respite, Taiwan’s electorate will face at least three key contests through March 2008: mayors of the two largest and most important cities, the national legislature, and the presidency.
Politicians and commentators lament the packed electoral calendar. The perceived dangers come in several varieties. The expense of the endless string of elections provided an important argument for holding “three-in-one” elections in 2005. It also entwined with the broader concern over the cost of government to help drive the constitutional amendment shrinking the size of parliament and the increasingly sharp legislative wrangling over budgets, including a long-stalled supplementary appropriation for purchasing weapons from the United States.
Of more interest here, Taiwan’s chronic voting risks polarized and paralyzed politics. The frequent elections encourage the tendency to scrutinize local elections for their implications for an upcoming national election. This in turn encourages national-level politicians to interject supra-local issues into each contest. Such tendencies may be inescapable in small and competitive democracies, but the shortness of the electoral cycle in Taiwan makes matters worse.
With each election’s result thus seen not only as a measure of parties’ current standing but also as a determinant of their prospects in the next election, and with each campaign effectively underway when the prior election ends, officeholders and prospective candidates face strong incentives not to take risks and especially not to risk handing the other side a pre-election political gain. “We can take a more bipartisan approach once the next election is over” is a common sentiment in democratic polities, but it is a problematic one in Taiwan, where the next election always seems only months away. The scope narrows for deals that don’t provide immediate pay-offs to all participants. Prospects for inter-branch cooperation and statesmanlike approaches to policy problems are dimmed, and the temptation to score cheap or dramatic political points increases. Stalemate of the sort that has characterized Taiwanese politics is a predictable consequence.
“Voter burnout” is a commonly made prediction in Taiwan. It has not yet materialized. Turnout has continued to surpass 60 percent (with the insignificant exception of the National Assembly election, which chose representatives largely to rubberstamp the constitutional amendments passed by the Legislative Yuan). Still, the worry is pervasive.
Were voter turnout to drop sharply, it would make it harder for victors to claim mandates for their preferred policies, making governing more difficult—especially in the environment of divided government that Taiwan has had since 2000. The prospect of lower turnout also reduces the utility of one high-visibility political-governmental tool, since referenda can pass only if a majority of the eligible electorate votes.
Moreover, expectations that fewer voters may go to the polls encourage each bloc to play to its more extreme base and to vilify its opponents. Many observers attribute the turn to ideological messages and the invocation of cross-Strait issues in recent local races to this endgame drive to energize the hardcore partisan vote. On this view, those efforts to rally these core supporters became especially urgent because of party elites’ fears that many among the broad center of moderate voters might stay home, despite recognition that playing to the base increased the likelihood that those fears would in fact be realized.
The constitutional change to restructure the legislature into smaller, single-member districts is expected to (1) reduce polarization, by denying a seat to, say, a fourth- place finisher with fringe followers in a four-member district; (2) sharpen the focus on truly local issues, by giving voters a sole representative to hold accountable and by tying a legislator’s incentives to the interests of a more compact and coherent community; and (3) consolidate a two-party system, by making it more likely that a three-way race will result in the contested seat’s going to the candidate of whichever of the two blocs fields a single candidate.
While such expectations are perfectly in keeping with political science theory, it is far from certain that all of them will come true. The 2005 county magistrate contests seemed to offer preliminary validation to the third hypothesis: all but one of the 21 principal county magistracies went to KMT or DPP candidates; most contests saw only two serious candidates; and truly three-way races were confined almost entirely to districts where the bloc that divided either had so little support that unity was unlikely to have led to victory or such strong support that unity seemed unnecessary to secure the seat.
As to the other two propositions, however, the December elections provide grounds for skepticism. The inherent localism of those elections and the single-seat structure of the magistracies failed to check the campaigns’ invocation of national and international issues or ideological and partisan appeals. Moreover, the election reinforced a regional dimension in Taiwan’s politics that in some respects parallels the U.S.’s notorious division into red and blue states. While Taiwanese have long spoken of the “blue north” and the “green south,” the county elections produced a map with an exceptionally clear dividing line. Although that line may not hold for long and still contains one small exception, for now it separates contiguous zones of solid green and solid blue.
The Road Ahead for Cross-Strait Relations
In addition to confirming Taiwan’s robust democratization, the December elections are important for the sweeping KMT victory and as an apparent harbinger of pan-blue success in the 2008 presidential balloting. Yet, it is far from clear that this election portends a significant shift in a traditionally “blue” or pro-accommodation direction for cross-Strait policy.
While the pan-blue camp appears to be on a roll, its electoral victories coincide with a “greening” of the blues, particularly on matters relevant to cross-Strait relations. The median Taiwanese voter arguably remains a consistent shade of teal on such issues and perhaps more generally. True, the 2005 mainland visits by Lien and Soong looked— especially to pan-green critics—like a shift back toward the “pro-reunification” approach that Chen and his KMT predecessor President Lee had so sharply eroded. But the dramatic pilgrimages by former pan-blue standard-bearers has not yet clearly heralded a significant reversal of trends that run generally in the opposite direction. As candidates in the 2004 election, Lien and Soong struck stances on cross-Strait relations and Taiwanese identity that were a good deal closer to Chen’s and the DPP’s positions than had been the case during their presidential campaigns four years earlier.
As the pan-blue’s likely nominee for president in 2008, Ma has sounded more like the Lien-Soong of 2004 than the Lien or Soong of 2000. Some also credit Ma with considerable shrewdness in leaving Lien to take charge of the KMT-CCP dialogue. This approach partly insulates Ma from the risk of such dealings’ casting their protagonists in an excessively bluish hue (which is a particular concern for Ma as a waishengren, or “mainlander,” candidate who needs significant bentu, or “Taiwanese,” support). The tactic also allows Ma an opportunity to “audition” relatively accommodationist cross-Strait initiatives with the electorate, embracing them only if they seem more helpful to the KMT’s claims to be the party best able to deal with the mainland than they are harmful to its resilience to charges of failing to safeguard Taiwan’s interests and functional sovereignty.
In the immediate aftermath of the KMT victories in the December elections, Ma distanced himself from the suggestion that the outcome signaled a shift in Taiwanese voters’ support for the status quo or implied a demand for significant changes in near-term cross-Strait policy. Ma declared that, while the election’s winning party favored greater cooperation with China, the voting did not mean that Taiwanese now favored reunification, or any departure from the cross-Strait political status quo.
As for the greens, the implications of their troubles for Taiwan’s cross-Strait policies are not simple. A pan-green recovery is highly unlikely by 2008, given the margin of defeat, the responsibility for the losses that leading DPP presidential contenders Su and Hsieh have had to bear, scandals over the Kaohsiung mass-transit project and insider trading within the presidential office, and the existence of internecine divides that have triggered speculation about the party’s possibly splitting up. But a recovery is not impossible. Two and a quarter years is a long time in Taiwanese politics. And the greens’ opponents may be less formidable than they appear, given not-yet-healed divisions between the KMT and PFP, rivalries within the KMT and many voters’ abiding distrust of the KMT as a ruling party.
The quest for a near-term pan-green resurgence might well herald the party’s continuation and extension of Chen-era approaches toward the PRC, or it might involve repositioning on a number of issues, including cross-Strait questions such as easing investment restrictions and providing direct transportation links in order to permit stronger economic ties. The DPP has only begun to grapple with how to allocate blame for its electoral defeats and consider what internal reforms to undertake in response to its rebukes from the voters. That process surely will include debate on overcoming scandals, which is an especially pressing concern given the DPP’s long-standing self-positioning as a party of reform; on domestic policy and governance issues, where there is much repair work to be done on the party’s image; and on factional politics within the DPP and the larger pan- green bloc, which have been a chronic problem. But the DPP’s adjustments may also involve mainland policies and almost certainly will have implications for them.
Chen will remain the president for the next two-plus years and will continue to do much to shape the pan-green stance on cross-Strait matters. While pundits and politicians have differed over the likely magnitude and direction of any post-election change in the Chen administration’s approach to dealing with Beijing, it seems likely that mainland relations will be a significant focus during the remainder of Chen’s tenure. Given the allocation of powers in Taiwan’s constitutional system and the pan-blue’s legislative majority, relations with the PRC are one of the few areas in which the president has great independent power to shape policy. Further, Chen is considered to be a man concerned with his legacy, which would include his contributions to safeguarding what he routinely describes as Taiwan’s sovereignty and, as some would put it, advancing Taiwan’s independence. This augurs no softening of his line on relations with the PRC. On the other hand, some see Chen as wanting to leave behind some accomplishments in improving cross-Strait ties—or at least not wanting to leave all credit for impending advancements to his pan-blue opponents. This, when coupled with the pressure Chen faces from his supporters within the business community, points to pursuit of progress on the three links and other aspects of economic relations.
Finally, there are the reds. China’s Taiwan policy has become more savvy. Launching a missile crisis in 1996 gave way to Premier Zhu Rongji’s finger-wagging warning in 2000, and to still subtler and less counterproductive tactics for addressing Taiwan’s voters and affecting Taiwan’s electoral politics in 2004 and since. Inviting Lien and Soong for high-profile, feel-good visits to the mainland and passing an Anti-Secession Law are complicated tactics that have in some respects alienated some of their intended Taiwanese targets but which also have shown enhanced agility in advancing the PRC’s cross-Strait agenda with relevant audiences on Taiwan.
Although the Lien-Soong trips deepened suspicions of pan- blue traitorousness in some Taiwanese circles, they also advanced what appears to be a promising Chinese strategy of divide and conquer. They also served to underscore for some Taiwanese the Chen administration’s inability to make any progress in dealing with the PRC, including on concrete economic issues that matter a great deal to Taiwan’s influential business community and to its economy more broadly. To be sure, the Anti-Secession Law prompted widespread concern and anger in Taiwan. But many Taiwanese at least privately conceded that it also reaffirmed a Chinese tolerance for the status quo (even as it also cautioned against further, unspecified moves toward formal independence, presumably of the sort associated with “deep green” politics in Taiwan).
While some foresee a possibility that China will seek to achieve a breakthrough in cross-Strait relations during Chen’s final two and a quarter years in office, capitalizing on his weakened political condition and his imputed interest in leaving a positive legacy in mainland policy, this is not the most likely scenario. Having turned a cold shoulder to Chen for so long and having used the Lien-Soong trips and other means to cultivate the pan-blue, Beijing seems unlikely to strike a deal with Chen in the run-up to an expected pan-blue set of victories in 2007-08, especially not on any terms that Chen would find acceptable. But China’s options too are constrained in ways that cannot yet be fully discerned. Given the progress of Taiwanese democracy, the intractable salience of cross-Strait issues in Taiwanese electoral politics, and the frequency of Taiwanese elections, Beijing, like everyone else, must wait and adapt to the outcomes of the recent and upcoming elections.