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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Taiwan's political pendulum swings - Opinion - theage.com.au

Taiwan's political pendulum swings - Opinion - theage.com.au

By Tony Parkinson
December 7, 2005

The resurgence of the Kuomintang should ease tensions with Beijing.

THE Kuomintang is surging back towards primacy in the politics of Taiwan. Perverse though it seems, nobody will welcome this comeback more than the old enemy in Beijing.

After having its 50-year rule of the island rudely interrupted for the past five years by the new kids on the block, the Democratic Progressive Party, the heirs of Chiang Kai-shek appear to have adjusted to the rhythms of democracy, and the art of modern election campaigning. This weekend, the KMT announced itself as very much on the march, winning more than two-thirds of local and provincial elections across the island, including the crucial stronghold of Taipei County.

The landslide victory signals a dramatic shift in voter sentiment away from the ruling DPP and President Chen Shui-bian. Across the straits, the Chinese Communist Party will be jubilant. Beijing knows the result will be interpreted internationally as a referendum on the DPP's China policy and, hence, a repudiation of Chen's efforts to put further distance between Taiwan and the mainland.

The reality, of course, is far more nuanced.

One explanation for voter disenchantment with the DPP is its failure to deliver on long-promised reforms, in part due to a stalemate in the legislature. Conversely, there is alarm in the public sector, notably in the army and among teachers, about proposals to wind back their retirement benefits. There is also a general anxiety about Taiwan's more subdued economic performance in recent years.

Although most advanced economies would settle happily for Taiwan's economic growth this year of 3.6 per cent, this is seen in Taipei as a less-than-exemplary outcome, especially when the Government is running budget deficits. Never far from the surface is a sense of unease at being overshadowed — and a fear of being overwhelmed — by the emerging economic powerhouse of China.

Such is the sense of apprehension, the DPP has been urging business to pull back on its enthusiasm for investment in manufacturing on the mainland, and urging Taiwanese capital to diversify its interests in the neighbourhood, with particular focus on Vietnam. Officially, the argument goes that this would reduce exposure to the risk of political upheaval or economic downturn in China. But implicit is an attempt to unravel economic interdependence that some in government fear will compromise Taiwan's capacity to resist China's strenuous efforts to impose its will on what it sees as a renegade province.

China's strategy is to suffocate the separate identity of Taiwan. The Beijing leadership has declared this mission a sacred responsibility.

Hence, its unrelenting and ruthless campaign to isolate the island, and the positioning of more than 700 missiles on the Fujian coast to remind Taiwan's elected rulers of the shift in the military balance, and its readiness to use force.

In this latest election campaign, however, China kept a low profile.

Although it was a Chinese-controlled TV network that first published details of perhaps the most egregious smear in these local elections — a none-too-convincing spy camera portrayal of DPP officials handing out what may have been wads of cash to supporters at a campaign rally in Taipei County — Beijing, it seems, has come to understand the risks of a backlash when it intervenes too overtly in Taiwan's domestic campaigning.

One consequence of the DPP's stunning defeat may be that China calculates it can afford to sit back and wait out the remaining two years of Chen's presidency, in the expectation Taiwan may soon elect a leader and government more amenable to its one China, two systems prescription for reunification.

For the one indisputable fact to emerge from this weekend is that KMT party chief, Ma Ying-jeou — or Chairman Ma as he is frequently described — becomes the emphatic frontrunner leading towards the 2008 presidential elections.

For Chen, halfway into his second term, the challenge is to avoid being condemned to lame-duck status. One chastening lesson for the DPP, and Chen, is that they will have to prove far more adept at cohabitation with the KMT if they are to secure the passage of important reforms through the Parliament. They have paid a heavy political price for the brinkmanship and head-butting of recent years.

What might this mean to Chen's assertive pro-independence stance? Is he willing or capable of seeking detente with the mainland? Probably not. The Beijing leadership is far more likely to see its interests as better served by awaiting the return to power of people with whom they think they can do business.

Yet, for all this, it would be unwise to assume events are leading inexorably towards China prevailing on the Taiwan question. No elected leadership on the island — DPP or KMT — is ever going to meekly surrender sovereignty according to the Beijing formula.
Tony Parkinson is a senior columnist.

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