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Taiwan opposition wins elections by landslide, in blow to government’s hardline China policies

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Posted: January 12, 2008 3:15 p.m.
Updated: January 27, 2008 5:00 a.m.
    TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan’s opposition Nationalist Party won a landslide victory in legislative elections Saturday, dealing a humiliating blow to the government’s hardline China policies two months before a presidential poll.
    President Chen Shui-bian, who has been criticized for aggravating relations with China by promoting policies to formalize Taiwan’s de facto independence, resigned as chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party immediately after the extent of the defeat became clear.
    ‘‘I should shoulder all responsibilities,’’ Chen said. ‘‘I feel really apologetic and shamed.’’
    Critics say Chen’s policies have allowed Taiwan’s once vibrant economy to lose competitiveness and ratcheted up tension in the perennially edgy Taiwan Strait. Washington has made it clear it finds Chen’s China policies dangerous and provocative — particularly a planned referendum on Taiwanese membership in the United Nations, which appears designed to underscore the island’s political separateness from the mainland.
    A March 22 presidential election to chose a successor to Chen, who must step down after eight years in office, pits Frank Hsieh of Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party against the Nationalists’ Ma Ying-jeou. Recent opinion polls give Ma a 20-point lead.
    The DPP wants to formalize the independence Taiwan has had since an inconclusive civil war nearly 60 years ago, but has held off out of fears that China would make good on threats to attack. In contrast, the Nationalists favor more active engagement with China and do not rule out eventual unification.
    With most votes counted, TV station San Li projected the Nationalists would win 82 seats in the 113-seat Legislature, against only 27 for the DPP, with four going to independents. In Taiwan’s bitterly partisan media environment, San Li is a strong DPP supporter.
    Speaking at Nationalist headquarters in Taipei, Ma said the party had won 81 seats — enough to give it a  3/4 majority together with four pro-Nationalist independents — but cautioned against overconfidence.
    ‘‘We need to be cautious about the presidential poll, and hopefully we can win,’’ he said. ‘‘With a Nationalist presidency and Nationalist-controlled legislature, we can push forward the reform expected by the Taiwanese people.’’
    If the Nationalists do go on to recapture the presidency, they will be in a strong position to end years of deadlock between Taiwan’s legislative and executive branches, and stabilize the island’s rocky relations with China. In Taiwan’s bitterly partisan media environment, San Li is a strong DPP supporter and offered the most conservative assessment of the Nationalist sweep.
    Shelley Rigger, a Taiwan specialist at North Carolina’s Davidson College, said in order for Hsieh to win the presidency, he must distance himself from Chen, who has grown increasingly unpopular after a series of corruption scandals and a sputtering economy.
    ‘‘He needs to convince people that he is different from the rest of the party,’’ Rigger said.
    During Chen’s two terms as president, the Nationalists used a slender legislative majority to block many of his policy initiatives, including the purchase of a multibillion-dollar package of American weapons. Also left stagnating have been negotiations to open direct air and shipping routes between Taiwan and China.
    In the legislative campaign, Ma emphasized his message that Chen’s reluctance to engage China inflamed tensions and hurt the island’s economy — one of the 20 largest in the world and a major research and manufacturing base for the computer industry.
    Ma also drew attention to American unhappiness with Chen’s China policies. Twenty-nine years after it shifted recognition from Taipei to Beijing, the U.S. remains Taiwan’s most important foreign partner, supplying it with the means to defend itself against any future Chinese attack.
    In contrast to Ma, Hsieh maintained a relatively low profile in the legislative campaign, apparently because of his ambivalence over Chen’s pro-independence stance.
    Hsieh hews to the DPP’s pro-independence line in principle, but has made it clear he rejects some of Chen’s hard-line policies, including his moves to limit Taiwanese economic ties to the mainland.
    He favors of ditching Chen’s requirement that Taiwanese companies limit investments in China to less 40 percent of their asset value. He has also indicated a willingness to expand direct charter flights across the Taiwan Strait.
    Ma and the Nationalists go considerably farther. They want to remove the asset requirement altogether, and sanction scheduled flights between China and Taiwan.
    China’s government did not immediately react, but was likely to be comforted by the election results.
    ‘‘The election will have a positive impact, benefiting stability across the Taiwan Strait,’’ said Yu Keli, head of the Taiwan Studies Institute, a Chinese government-backed think tank in Beijing. ‘‘The Taiwanese electorate has delivered a no-confidence vote on Chen Shui-bian.’’

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