Monday, May 16, 2005

The weekend’s National Assembly elections provide an interesting snapshot of Taiwan’s political situation.

Voters cast their ballots for party slates, not individuals, that would make up the National Assembly, which in turn would vote along party lines for or against various constitutional amendments affecting election of the legislature, popular referenda and the like.

There were no real issues involved—both the DPP and KMT slates support the amendments, which are assured of ratification.

The election was billed to the DPP faithful as a critical show of strength after the KMT and PFP—thanks in part to a mushmouthed response by President Chen Shui-bian--had seized the political initiative with their China initiatives.

The election itself was confusing to many voters, overshadowed in the media by coverage of the visits of the KMT’s Lien Chan and the PFP’s James Soong to the mainland, and its turnout squelched by torrential rainstorms.

Not surprisingly, turnout was a whopping 23.1%--a historic low for Taiwan.

So the vote was can be taken as a pretty straightforward popularity contest among hard-core voters who would brave a confusing ballot and awful weather to vote for their guys.

In other words, only the base came out, and here's how they voted:

DPP 42.5%
KMT 38.9%
TSU 7.1%
PFP 6.1%

The KMT probably lost a percentage point because voters confused it with a similarly-named fringe party.

The DPP eagerly spun the result as evidence that its popularity had not been dented by the “China fever” surrounding Lien Chan and Soong’s visits. Certainly no tectonic shifts have occurred in Taiwan public opinion since the trips. At the same time, it looks like Chen Shui-bian’s base (DPP + TSU) caps out at 50%.

James Soong’s PFP, which drastically underperformed compared to its own expectations, was tagged as the loser.

The real loser might have been Taiwan’s multi-party system. If Soong’s weakness persists, his supporters may simply drift to the KMT and accelerate the development of two-party politics.

I would find that regrettable. A multi-party system offers flexibility and a chance for leaders to build ad hoc alliances to promote fresh policies. The two-party dialectic encourages polarization, base-pandering, and intransigence. That’s not an attractive option for Taiwan right now.

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