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Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010

The dead weight on Taiwanese aspirations


HONG KONG — The ruling party of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou — in an election carefully watched in Beijing — has managed to win three of five mayoral races in Taiwan, reversing a losing streak in legislative by-elections since Ma's presidential election triumph in 2008.

Even so, however, the Kuomintang won far fewer votes island-wide than the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, suggesting that the president may have problems in 2012, when he will run for a second term.

A postelection poll conducted by the Global Views Survey Research Center showed Ma's public confidence index dropping to 47.5 percent, putting him behind Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the DPP, with 51.2 percent.

It is evident that the DPP has managed a comeback despite the problems of former president and party leader Chen Shui-bian, who was sentenced last month to a total of 19 years in prison on corruption charges.

The two-party system seems to be working well so far, with the long-entrenched KMT losing power in 2000 only to regain it in 2008, when Ma won in a landslide by garnering over 7.6 million votes to 5.4 million votes for his opponent.

In last month's mayoral elections, however, while the status quo was maintained, with the opposition keeping two seats and the KMT retaining three, the DPP received 49.9 percent of all votes cast, compared to 44.5 percent for the KMT. The rest went to independents.

The overall decline in KMT electoral support means that Ma will certainly not be able to accede to Beijing's desire for political discussions on relations between Taiwan and mainland China.

With the vast majority of Taiwan's people favoring maintenance of the status quo, or de facto independence, there is little support for negotiations that Beijing hopes will lead to political reunification. Any sign that Ma is thinking of such talks in a second term could jeopardize his re-election prospects.

While the KMT continued to be strong in the north and the DPP in the south, the opposition party has made notable progress. In Tainan, for example, the DPP won by a margin of over 200,000 votes, much bigger than in previous elections.

In Kaohsiung, the incumbent DPP mayor, Chen Chu, won in a landslide, receiving 52.8 percent of the vote, while the KMT candidate came last in a three- way race, getting only 20.5 percent of the vote — sharply down from previous elections.

This means that the DPP has deepened and strengthened its base of support.

And even where it lost the races, the DPP showed impressive gains. This was particularly true in Taichung, where KMT incumbent Jason Hu squeaked through with 51.12 percent of the vote. In the last election in 2005, Hu won with a 20 percent margin.

In Taipei, traditionally a KMT stronghold, the incumbent Hau Lung-bin won re-election with a decisive margin of 55.65 percent. However, the 43.81 percent achieved by the challenger, the DPP's Su Tseng-chang, was the highest level achieved by the DPP since Chen Shui-bian ran for mayor in 1998.

Xinbei City, formerly known as Taipei County, was also retained by the KMT. The incumbent, Eric Chu, garnered 52.6 percent of the vote, defeating DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, who nevertheless received over a million votes, making her a serious contender for the presidency in 2012.

So there has been serious erosion in the KMT's support base while the DPP has managed not only to strengthen its base but to make inroads into traditionally KMT areas.

If China wants to prevent the pro-independence DPP from regaining power, it will have to support the KMT by allowing Taiwan more international space. Although there has been a big improvement since the days of Chen Shui-bian, there is much more than Beijing can do.

Last weekend, Taiwan's foreign minister, Timothy Yang, called for Beijing to take more seriously "the desire of the 23 million Taiwanese to participate in the international community."

Even where nongovernmental relations are concerned, Beijing continues to impede Taiwan's participation. In October, for example, on the opening night of the Tokyo Film Festival, Chinese representatives demanded that the Japanese organizers change the name "Taiwan" to "China Taiwan" or "Chinese Taipei." When this was not done, the Chinese withdrew from the festival.

Such actions are unlikely to win for Beijing the minds and hearts of the people of Taiwan. For purely domestic political reasons, Ma may find it necessary to distance his government from China.

China should understand that hostility does not win friends, in Taiwan or anywhere else.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator(Frank.ching@gmail.com).


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