Taiwan elections: Ruling DPP suffers crushing defeat

”This is the most disastrous defeat since the establishment of the party” – Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian

Taiwan’s opposition Kuomintang (KMT) scored a landslide win in legislative elections on Saturday, 12 January. The result is a crucial pointer to what can happen when the island votes for a new president on 22 March. In one of history’s ironies, the Chinese regime has high hopes that the KMT can win back the presidency after eight years in opposition. The KMT ruled Taiwan as a one-party dictatorship for 40 years, after being defeated by Mao’s communists in the Chinese civil war. Growing mass protests forced the KMT to introduce an electoral system in the late 1980s.

In Saturday’s elections to a streamlined parliament, the Legislative Yuan, with the number of seats halved from the previous election, the KMT and its smaller ’pan-blue’ allies won 86 of 113 seats. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was left with less than a quarter of the seats – just 27 – a humiliating blow to president Chen Shui-bian, who has ruled Taiwan since 2000.

What does this election result mean for the future, for ordinary working people in Taiwan, and for relations with the Chinese mainland? Does the humbling of Chen – who resigned as DPP chairman with immediate effect on election night – mean the issue of Taiwan independence is laid to rest?

Firstly, the cross-strait issue does not seem to have been the dominant political issue in the minds of Taiwan’s voters. Rather the economy, and growing dissatisfaction among workers, but also sections of the middle class over a deterioration in their living standards, seems to have cost the DPP support. In that sense, this election fits a recent regional pattern from Japan, Australia, South Korea and Thailand, of sitting governments (or military dictators in the latter case) being punished at the polls.

”It is clear that people are yearning for change, after eight years of suffering,” KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou said on Saturday, to the sound of fireworks and champagne corks popping at the party’s Taipei headquarters. But rather than a vote of confidence in the KMT to turn Taiwan’s economy around, the election was a devastating rejection of the DPP, and a feeling that the KMT could hardly be worse!

Economic woes

A survey published two weeks ago by CommonWealth Magazine revealed the groundswell of discontent building up in society. 72 percent of the people interviewed said they were dissatisfied with Taiwan’s economic performance, the highest such rate in five years. 85 percent of respondents also said the widening gap between rich and poor had become a serious issue. And close to 60 percent replied that ”the present economic downturn was the greatest crisis facing Taiwan”.

A recent JP Morgan report warned that current demographic trends (a ’greying’ population) mean that GDP growth could slow to 2-3 percent, and that household income could actually start to shrink. This report stated that average starting salaries for graduates were already falling.

This is a crushing indictment of eight years of DPP rule, during which the economy has enjoyed average growth over 4 percent. The DPP evolved from the anti-dictatorship protests of the 1980s and was, before it took power, considered a ’social democratic’ party with an influential left-wing. But its rise to power was accompanied by a rapid shift to the right and full acceptance of neo-liberal policies – privatisation, deregulation and casualisation – underpinned by WTO membership (under the name ”Chinese Taipei”) just one month after China joined, in December 2001. DPP governments have attempted to privatise large sections of the economy especially in banking, telecomms and utilities. As reported on chinaworker.info, railway workers staged angry protests in November, and threatened a national strike this year against privatisation-related attacks. These attacks on workers have been accompanied by a wave of corruption scandals involving top DPP politicians including relatives of president Chen himself. Corruption inside the KMT, endemic since before its arrival on the island in 1949, was a crucial factor behind its losing power to the DPP eight years ago.

Low turnout

The results do not signify any real enthusiasm or solid support for the KMT. ”At least part of the KMT success owes to a vote against the DPP as incumbents,” commented the Taipei Times (14 January). Voter turnout in these elections was less than 57 percent, which is the lowest in legislative elections for 35 years (under the KMT dictatorship). As the Taipei Times also noted this “indicates widespread alienation among Taiwan’s voters. The numbers attending campaign rallies were also quite low”. Other reports pointed to a particularly low turnout among younger voters.

The national question inside Taiwan is extremely complex, with powerful emotions aroused on both sides of the pro- or anti-China divide. But 68 percent of the population, according to one recent poll, want to keep the ’status quo’ i.e. the current legally ambiguous status of self-rule in reality, while at the same time not formally breaking the connection with China. Fear of a horrific war is one reason for this, as is the growing perception that economic ties with China are a fact of life. In the first 11 months of 2007, China absorbed more than 40 percent of Taiwan’s total exports. An estimated one million Taiwanese, or 4.3 percent of its population, either work or live in mainland China.

These factors have meant that Chen’s attempts to whip up pro-independence fervour have not met with the same level of popular support as in the early years of his presidency. An additional factor is that China’s rulers have opted to keep a low profile in this and other recent elections, having seen that threats and attempts to browbeat the Taiwanese into voting for Beijing’s preferred candidates invariably backfires. But there is also a growing scepticism towards Chen, and other capitalist politicians, both ’pan-blue’ (pro-China) and ’pan-green’ (pro-independence), because they use the cross-strait issue as a diversion, an excuse for whipping up nationalist emotion, while pursuing the same neo-liberal policy of attacking the working class and the poor.

The tragedy of the situation in Taiwan is that there is no ’red’ alternative – a democratic socialist workers’ party – to the pan-blue and pan-green capitalist blocs. Voters are faced with a choice between two blocs that stand for the same capitalist policies to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Even on the cross-strait issue the DPP and KMT have moved closer towards each other under the pressure of their big business backers. The KMT has in practice abandoned reunification as a policy, saying this is an ’eventual’ aim, while the DPP has also abandoned independence as an immediate strategy, opting instead for high-profile stunts such as UN membership for Taiwan, and renaming of streets and monuments as a kind of ’surrogate independence’. The DPP’s presidential candidate and former Prime Minister, Frank Hsieh, has echoed KMT policies, saying he would lift investment bans that prevent Taiwanese companies placing more than 40 percent of their capital on the mainland. Hsieh is known to be a ’sceptic’ as far as independence is concerned, who basically goes through the motions as this is still official DPP policy.

DPP – down but not out

But it is the KMT and its candidate Ma that have the official blessing of the Beijing regime. To punish the DPP for its pro-independence posturing, Beijing has made clear it will only deal with a KMT administration. In this way it uses the mainland’s increased economic weight as a ’carrot’ before the Taiwan capitalists in particular. But again, Beijing is showing some discretion of late for fear that a too open display of support for Ma and the KMT could drive many Taiwanese into voting for the DPP out of fear that a KMT vote will mean greater involvement by Beijing over Taiwan’s affairs.

There is no doubt that if, as now seems very likely, Ma is elected in March, a new chapter will open up in the stormy history of cross-strait relations. Paradoxically though, even with a big win for Ma, it may not go as smoothly as Beijing hopes.

For a start, Ma’s promise to ”reconstruct the economy” will be put to the test. While there is widespread support for direct transportation links with the mainland and increased cross-strait tourism, Ma’s policy of lifting all restrictions on capital flows could soon run into a popular backlash if jobs and investment are seen to flood out of Taiwan. This, of course, is what the capitalists want – increased profits on the backs of cheaper, unorganised labour, but also to use the mainland workforce as a stick to beat down the wages, welfare benefits and trade union rights of Taiwanese workers.

In the absence of a mass socialist party in Taiwan that could offer an inspiring example to workers on the mainland, then just as the KMT has been revived as a result of the DPP’s unpopularity, so too can the DPP make a comeback in the period ahead. Especially if the global crisis of capitalism now unfolding pulls the Chinese economy into recession, this could have a calamitous impact on Taiwan. In this situation, the general support that exists today for closer integration with China could evaporate, giving way to powerful protectionist moods in Taiwan that a revamped DPP would lose no time in exploiting. This in turn could blow new life into the cross-strait conflict, with economic tensions inevitably spilling over into political, diplomatic and possibly even military ones.

What is needed is an independent political voice for Taiwanese and for Chinese workers, to fight against neo-liberal globalisation – which is also now the credo of China’s ’communist’ rulers. A genuine democratic socialist party would counter-pose with ’closer links’ of the oppressed, based on common struggle regardless of national frontiers, to the ’closer links’ based on exploitation, favoured by the capitalists and their politicians on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

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