The China card
Mar 20th 2008 | TAIPEI
Taiwan's presidential elections
THE last thing China wants in the presidential election in Taiwan on March 22nd is another victory for the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). It still looks unlikely. But the military crackdown in Tibet and a warning from Wen Jiabao, the prime minister of China, that independence for either Tibet or Taiwan would be intolerable has helped the DPP candidate, Frank Hsieh. He has narrowed a double-digit deficit in unpublished opinion polls and pulled to within five percentage points of Ma Ying-jeou, the candidate of the opposition Nationalists, the Kuomintang or KMT.
Mr Ma tried to shore up his flagging support by taking a tough stance against China’s action. He threatened to boycott the Beijing Olympics should the bloodshed continue. Even that may have backfired, however. Rather against the odds, Taiwan’s baseball team this month qualified for the games—a triumph relished by the island’s many baseball fans.
Sabre-rattling by Beijing might be counterproductive in another way, too, improving the chances that two referendums to be held along with the presidential election, both of which China hopes will be roundly defeated, might actually be approved. One asks whether Taiwan should apply to rejoin the United Nations using the name “Taiwan”; the other asks if it should apply using “the Republic of China” (its formal nomenclature), “Taiwan” or something else. Parts of the KMT had been calling for a boycott of the referendums, which require a 50% turnout for the result to be valid.
After a landslide victory in January’s parliamentary election, the KMT’s bid to regain the presidency—which it held for five decades until 2000—enjoyed massive momentum. After eight years of lacklustre DPP rule, voters seemed ready for a change. But the KMT’s ambitions for closer ties with China, including even a peace treaty and a “Great China” common market, now look less like votewinners.
The KMT may have been hurt by overconfidence. Three weeks before election day, some senior party officials went so far as to claim that the DPP had no chance.
The DPP, however, has been aggressively ramming away at KMT policies and behaviour. It managed to portray a provocative visit by four KMT legislators to Mr Hsieh’s campaign headquarters on March 12th as evidence of an attempt at “one-party dominance”. This linked it to the authoritarianism that marked the KMT’s rule. Mr Hsieh has also taken every opportunity to label the “Great China” market a “One China” market, insisting the policy is tantamount to surrender to the communists.
He has spread fears that under the plan, Chinese workers and products would flood Taiwan, even though Mr Ma has repeatedly insisted that this would not be allowed to happen. The DPP has also attacked Mr Ma’s planned peace treaty, claiming it would lead Taiwan to a destiny no different from that of Tibet, which signed an agreement with China in 1951 promising it great autonomy.
In self-defence, Mr Ma has reiterated his “three noes” policy towards China—“no independence, no unification, and no military conflict”. He has emphasised his identity as a Taiwanese (despite his mainland-Chinese heritage) who would defend the island’s interests, by using local songs to accompany his television commercials.
In the previous presidential election in 2004, the DPP won by a mere 0.22%. Political analysts expect the KMT to win by a bigger margin of 2-4%, or some 250,000 to 500,000 votes. But if the DPP fares well in its stronghold in the south and wins a slight edge in central Taiwan it might just scrape home.
In the past two elections, China has tried and failed to intimidate Taiwanese voters. In 1996 it fired missiles in an attempt to scare voters away from the KMT’s independence-minded Lee Teng-hui—who this week endorsed the DPP’s Mr Hsieh. Again, in 2000, China gave warning of the danger of voting for pro-independence candidates. This year, it seemed to have learned its lesson and has been conspicuously silent. But events in Tibet have spoken louder than words.