The Kuomintang won a sweeping victory in Taiwan’s parliamentary elections on January 12, 2008. This, and the enhanced prospect for a KMT victory in the March 2008 presidential vote, brought relief in Washington, Beijing and elsewhere that Taiwan’s lively and tumultuous democracy posed less of a threat to cross-Strait stability than many had feared. Both the fear and the relief are partially misplaced.
A Repudiation of Chen Shui-bian …
President Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party administration have made several moves that have contributed to tense relations across the Taiwan Strait and soured U.S.-Taiwan relations: pursuit of a “new” and distinctly “Taiwanese” constitution and other constitutional reforms that imply greater state or state-like status; referenda that implicitly asserted state-like rights to self-defense and a cross-Strait relationship between equals; evisceration of a presidential pledge not to abolish a key policy directive and institution that, in principle, embraced the possibility of eventual unification with China; and proposing a referendum that calls for Taiwan’s entry into the UN, which is generally regarded as an organization open only to states.
The January 12 parliamentary elections, which boosted the share of the KMT and its allies from a slim majority to three-fourths, are widely viewed as a popular rebuke to approaches that have been a regular feature of politics under Chen: pressing the issue of Taiwan’s international status in ways that are seen as costly to cross-Strait relations and U.S.-Taiwan relations; invoking Taiwanese identity in divisive ways; and questioning the patriotism of DPP leaders, members and voters who seemed insufficiently zealous in their embrace of Taiwanese-ness. As in earlier elections during Chen’s eight years in power, Chen and others among the DPP turned to identity politics and a hard line on China to energize their electoral base, warning that a KMT victory would bring a sell-out of Taiwan’s interests to China. They had planned to continue that strategy into the March 2008 presidential vote by pairing it with the referendum on entering the UN. This time, however, the tactic failed, and the election brought the most devastating loss in the party’s brief history.
While the DPP’s setback partly reflects voters’ aversion to these approaches to cross-Strait and identity issues, it is also broadly recognized as manifesting popular discontent over the DPP administration’s shortcomings on other fronts. These include a weak economy (measured by Taiwan’s high standards); ineffective government (attributed to DPP officials’ inadequacies and to stalemate stemming from divided government and party polarization); and corruption, including among the president’s family and top-level officials. The latter is particularly damaging because of the DPP’s origins as a government reform movement and its long-running attack on KMT corruption.
These other explanations for a KMT victory might suggest a caveat to the conclusion that the legislative election was a referendum on the DPP approach to issues of national identity and international stature. Nonetheless, voters’ apparent emphasis on relatively “ordinary” domestic political issues is, in effect, a rejection of the central role that identity politics and international status have played in electoral politics under Chen. If the electorate’s seeming rejection of that focus holds for the presidential election and beyond, this greatly constricts the opportunity for Chen or others in the DPP to turn again to themes that have created friction across the Strait and with Washington in recent years.
Moreover, the KMT triumph in the parliamentary election seems to bode well for KMT victo