Despite Victory, Taiwanese Party Urges Caution

Ma Ying-jeou, the presidential candidate of Taiwan's opposition Nationalist party, cited the need to be "humble."
Ma Ying-jeou, the presidential candidate of Taiwan's opposition Nationalist party, cited the need to be "humble." (By Chiang Ying-ying -- Associated Press)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 14, 2008

TAIPEI, Taiwan, Jan. 13 -- As word spread of their landslide victory in Taiwan's legislative elections, flag-waving Nationalist party stalwarts filled the lobby of their headquarters Saturday evening with shouts of joy, partisan chants and patriotic songs.

But in a meeting room inside the building was another scene. The Nationalist presidential candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, presided somber-faced over a subdued victory ceremony, repeatedly invoking the need to be "humble" and "cautious" in the two months remaining until Taiwanese voters go back to the polls to replace President Chen Shui-bian.

"We have to work hard to fulfill people's hopes," he warned. "We still have a long road ahead of us."

Ma's caution came despite what had been a resounding Nationalist victory. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party won only 27 seats in the 113-member Legislative Yuan, while the Nationalists and their allies gained an unstoppable majority of 86 seats with more than 70 percent of the vote. For many analysts, the large margin foreshadowed a near-certain win for Ma in the presidential vote March 22 and, as a result, a decisive turn away from Chen's single-minded drive to push this self-ruled island toward formal independence.

That was a happy prospect for officials in Beijing and Washington, who have warned in concert that Chen's repeated gestures seeking to legalize Taiwan's autonomy carry the risk of crisis in the Taiwan Strait. With the United States pledged to help Taiwan defend itself, the Bush administration has made clear it has no appetite for such risk-taking while trade with China expands steadily and the U.S. military remains absorbed by Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ma has said he shares the U.S. and Chinese concerns and, in contrast to Chen's attitude over the last eight years, he has advocated getting along with the mainland in practical ways while putting off the question of Taiwan's ultimate status. But he based his prudence Saturday evening on what analysts said were several reasons to suspect that the March voting might be different from Saturday's landslide, making the repudiation of Chen's independence drive look less clear-cut.

The likelihood is still strong for a victory by Ma and an end to Chen's era of prickly confrontation, they said. But they cautioned that, on the basis of Saturday's vote alone, it is too early to write off the bedrock Taiwanese nationalism that Chen has championed throughout his career and that still touches many of the island's 23 million inhabitants.

Most of the legislative districts where Nationalists won so handily Saturday were decided on local pork-barrel issues such as roads and irrigation projects, analysts noted. In addition, less than 60 percent of eligible voters turned out, with many more likely to vote in the presidential election -- including those who share Chen's feelings. Finally, the Nationalist triumph was attributed to irritation with Chen's leadership style and questions about his honesty rather than a broad embrace of the Nationalist party, Ma and the promise of better relations with China.

"It is a change in the political landscape, but how do we interpret that?" asked Emile C.J. Sheng, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei. "It is not an approval of the Nationalists but disapproval of President Chen Shui-bian, his style and his integrity."

In recognition of the sentiment against him, Chen immediately resigned as chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party. Party officials predicted that its presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh, will now get a free hand to run his campaign as he sees fit, probably with a more moderate course on China designed to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters turned off by Chen's zeal.

Saturday's voters, for instance, overwhelmingly snubbed two referendums on alleged official corruption, suggesting they had no enthusiasm for another referendum that Chen has scheduled to accompany the presidential election in March. That one, asking whether the government should apply for U.N. membership under the name Taiwan, has been denounced as provocative by the Bush administration and as dangerous to peace in the Taiwan Strait by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.

The Nationalist party had called for a boycott of both referendums Saturday and was expected to do the same for the March vote on U.N. membership, according to Taiwanese analysts. "If that's the case, I don't see any chance of passing it," said Chih-cheng Lo, head of the political science department at Soochow. Referendums are invalid if they draw less than 50 percent participation from registered voters.

The likelihood of rejection for the March referendum will probably be greeted in Beijing and Washington with sighs of relief, Lo and other Taiwanese analysts said. Even if it passed, the referendum would have no practical effect; Taiwan has been told clearly it will not be readmitted to the United Nations under any name. But the vote was seen as an attempt by Chen to bestow an aura of democratic legitimacy on his lifelong goal of formal independence for the island.

"I believe Beijing is relieved, or even relaxed, over the results of yesterday's vote," said Chen-Yi Lin, a research fellow at Taiwan's Academia Sinica who, along with Sheng, participated in a forum Sunday analyzing the vote.

Taiwan has ruled itself since Chiang Kai-shek fled here with his defeated Nationalist forces in 1949. But the Communist Party in Beijing has always insisted the island is part of China and must one day return to the fold. Chinese rulers have threatened to use force if necessary to prevent formal independence and, in recent months, have warned the Bush administration repeatedly that the March referendum could be construed as a step in that direction.

According to Chinese sources, President Hu Jintao and the party's other senior leaders have resolved not to order any military action against Taiwan unless they are backed against a wall and national honor is at stake. How they define that, however, has never been made clear. "It's something we don't want to have to find out," a U.S. official said.

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