Prospects for Taiwan’s Upcoming Presidential Election

Dafydd Fell
Dafydd Fell Senior Lecturer in Taiwan Studies and Deputy Director, Centre of Taiwan Studies

June 1, 2007

In March 2008 Taiwan will hold its fourth direct presidential election. Although the election is still nine months away the campaign for nomination is well over two years old. By late May 2007, the nomination process for the two main parties was completed. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will be represented by former premier and Kaohsiung mayor, Frank Hsieh, while the Kuomintang (KMT) has nominated former party chairman and Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou.

In the autumn of 2006, it looked a foregone conclusion that Ma would be the next president. President Chen Shui-bian was facing the huge “Red Shirt” anti-corruption protests and an unprecedented series of KMT initiated recall votes in the legislature. The corruption attacks were centered on his son in law’s insider trading case, and allegations that he and the First Lady had misused the special presidential allowance fund. Earlier corruption scandals had contributed to a landslide KMT victory in the 2005 local executive elections. Following those elections, Ma’s public satisfaction rate stood at 80% compared to only 10% for President Chen. The DPP’s unpopularity was reflected in a mid 2006 party identification survey that gave the KMT a twenty percent lead over the DPP.

The KMT loses its commanding lead

Opinion polls in the early summer of 2007 still give Ma a significant lead, but not even the most optimistic KMT politician expects an easy ride in the election. In a sign of how the DPP has recovered and narrowed the gap, a recent survey showed that the DPP’s Frank Hsieh now has the highest public satisfaction rate among the island’s leading politicians, while Ma’s satisfaction rate has fallen from the high of 80% down to only 50%. In the previous two presidential elections, the DPP managed win despite lagging far behind in the opinion polls for almost the whole campaign. This election promises to be as closely fought as 2000 and 2004.

How could the KMT lose its commanding lead? Firstly, the KMT was damaged by its association with the disruption and violence related to the “Red Shirt” demonstrations and the movement’s sudden collapse in late 2006.

Ma had long benefited from his reputation as the model of clean governance in a party renowned for black gold politics. However, Ma’s clean image was severely tarnished when he came under investigation and then was indicted for misusing his own mayoral special allowance. The fact that this charge is similar to the allegations the KMT has been making against Chen has made the party’s anti-corruption appeal less convincing.

Although the KMT remains one of the richest political parties in the world and has an advantage over the DPP in its media resources, it still struggles to match the DPP in controlling the political agenda. The recent campaigns to remove Chiang Kai-shek statues and rename the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall follow the pattern of the DPP setting the agenda and the KMT reacting to DPP initiatives.

Prior to the December 2006 mayoral election most observers had predicted voters would punish the DPP for the string of corruption scandals. In actual fact, the results served to reinvigorate the DPP. Though it lost in Taipei, with Frank Hsieh as its candidate, its vote share rose significantly compared to the 2002 election. Despite being behind in the polls, the DPP retained the position of Kaohsiung mayor, the island’s second largest city. It also performed well in Kaohsiung and Taipei city council elections.

The DPP has come through the nomination process looking both more united and democratic than the KMT. Hsieh was nominated after winning a highly competitive DPP party primary. This process involved three televised debates and a national party member vote. After Hsieh won the primary, all three losing candidates publicly pledged their support for Hsieh’s presidential bid. In contrast, the KMT did not hold a primary, as no politician was prepared to openly challenge Ma. Ma’s main rival, Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, refused to join the primary. He argued that the ethnic structure of the KMT’s membership meant that the resulting candidate would not be representative of the overall population. He also claimed that the KMT’s political culture meant that a primary would be too divisive and could lead to the party splitting. Instead Wang appears to be pinning his hopes on Ma being disqualified from standing if he is found guilty of corruption.

One of Ma’s main achievements while KMT party chairman in 2005-2006 was to bring in tougher anti-corruption nomination regulations. Under the new rules a politician indicted for corruption would be ineligible for nomination. Thus Ma’s indictment on corruption charges put the party in a severe dilemma. First the KMT revised the regulations for Ma so that a conviction rather than an indictment is the new standard for blocking nomination. If Ma is found guilty in the first trial his supporters are also proposing a further revision that would stipulate that only after losing three trials should a candidate be disqualified. Such tinkering with regulations has undermined the KMT’s clean government reputation and also threatens to divide the party. Wang Jin-pyng has warned that such revisions would be unacceptable and cause a party split. If Wang used this as a justification to stand as an independent he would have little chance of victory but might divide the KMT vote sufficiently to allow Hsieh to triumph.

Despite Frank Hsieh’s rich election experience and the KMT’s recent self-inflicted wounds, he cannot take victory for granted. Like Ma, Hsieh also has skeletons in his closet. Hsieh is also under investigation for misuse of his mayoral special allowance. If he is indicted it is possible he would withdraw from the race, as it is unlikely that the DPP would revise its regulations to allow an indicted politician to stand as its candidate. On the eve of the DPP’s primary, allegations emerged that Hsieh was involved in a Kaohsiung Mass Rapid Transit corruption case. These claims are sure to resurface later in the campaign. Hsieh also needs to reach out to rival politicians and factions within his own DPP. Hsieh was not Chen Shui-bian’s first-choice candidate, as the two have been long-term rivals within the party. The DPP’s disastrous 1996 presidential election had shown the price to be paid for failure to unite behind the party candidate.

Campaign issues

The previous three presidential elections have focused on two main issue areas: (1) national identity (particularly the debate over Taiwan independence versus unification with China, and Chinese versus Taiwanese identity), and (2) political corruption. It looks likely that these two issues will once again be prominent in this campaign. However, as neither party can claim to be free of corruption, that issue may be less effective.

A disappointing aspect of recent Taiwanese elections is that alternative social or economic issues have often failed to get on the electoral agenda. At the height of the 2001-2002 recession, the KMT did give much stress to economic matters but its 2001 election setback led it to subsequently downplay the issue. Similarly, the DPP has become less enthusiastic over creating a welfare state, as it has found fulfilling such pledges a tricky business now that it is the ruling party. There is concern that the DPP will attempt to boost its election chances by holding a referendum on either a new constitution or KMT party assets (which many allege to have been illegally expropriated from their owners during the era of KMT rule). Nevertheless such projects stand little chance of gaining the necessary approval from the KMT-dominated legislature.

Therefore it looks likely that the DPP will fall back on identity appeals in the campaign. In 2006-7 the DPP and KMT appear to have become more polarized on identity than at any time since the early 1990s. In early 2006, Chen broke one of his inaugural pledges by scrapping the National Unification Guidelines and Council. While the KMT had largely steered clear of unification since the late 1990s, Ma reasserted that the KMT’s goal is eventual unification. The KMT’s party to party negotiations with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also revealed the growing divide between parties in Taiwan, as there had been a long-term consensus that such talks should wait until the PRC removed its military threat. Lastly in the realm of symbolic politics, the DPP campaign against Chiang Kai-shek represents an attempt to play the identity card. Similarly, the KMT’s response of defending Chiang reveals its shift back to embracing this Chinese nationalist idol, a symbol that the KMT had largely avoided under Lee Teng-hui in the 1990s.

These are all issues that will be heatedly debated during the upcoming campaign. However, now that the intra-party nomination process is complete the degree of polarization may well decline. The last three presidential elections have shown that Taiwan’s moderate public opinion has tended to encourage parties to converge on the center. The DPP has learnt on a number of occasions the costs of taking too extreme a position on national identity.

Another important variable for the upcoming presidential election will be the result of the January 2008 legislative election. After seven years of unsatisfactory divided government, it is likely that the winning party in the legislative election will receive a significant boost to its presidential campaign. As Taiwan will be using a new single member district two-vote electoral system for the first time, the results are hard to predict. Most analysts argue that the system will favor large parties, particularly the KMT. It is likely that the KMT will win in the north and the DPP in the south of the island. The election will be decided by who can win the central constituencies and the main parties’ ability to avoid rebel and allied party candidates dividing their votes.

A final decisive variable will be the candidates’ skill at putting on a show. This is something that rarely gets much attention from political scientists but is constantly debated on the local political news. One of the fatal weaknesses of the KMT candidate Lien Chan in 2000 and 2004 was his lack of charisma. In contrast, both Hsieh and Ma have repeatedly shown themselves to be masters of image creation and political performance. The quality of their political advertising, election rallies and election debates promises to be very high.

Post-election prospects

Taiwan’s relatively poor economic performance and the heightened political conflict of the last seven years have created much pessimism over the state of Taiwan’s democracy. In 2004 some KMT protestors even claimed that Taiwan’s “democracy is dead.” Nevertheless, there are promising signs for the future regardless of whether Hsieh or Ma triumphs.

It is likely that the new legislative election system will favor more moderate candidates and thus lead to less antagonistic party politics. Much of the inter-party hostility is rooted in the mutual hatred of Lien Chan, James Soong, Chen Shui-bian, and Lee Teng-hui. The fact that all four are fading from the political scene should also serve to reduce tensions.

On national identity and cross-Strait relations both Hsieh and Ma are moderate pragmatists. Under either we could expect to see calmer cross-Strait relations and closer economic integration, though Ma would go further than Hsieh in lifting economic restrictions. As Hsieh would be less likely to take the kind of provocative actions that have been a feature of the Chen Shui-bian presidency, cross-Strait tensions would be significantly reduced. However, it is unlikely that he would be prepared to make the kind of compromises that the PRC demands.

Ma, on the other hand would be prepared to accept the KMT interpretation of the “One China” principle, so his presidency would see a resumption of “unofficial” cross-Strait talks. However, Ma is from the orthodox Republic of China (ROC) nationalist school, thus ruling out consideration of any form of unification even in the medium term. He would take a much more cautious approach to relations with the PRC than suggested by Lien Chan. He openly condemned the Anti-Secession Law and would not talk of allying with the CCP against Taiwan independence. Ma would return to the 1990s position that the ROC is a sovereign independent state. Therefore, even if Ma wins it is open to question how long it will take for the PRC to lose patience on the lack of progress toward unification.