ASIA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Taiwan: opposition parties combine for next poll
, March 8, 2003
When Premier Yu Shyi-kun addressed the Taipei press corps on January 28, he had reason to be happy. He'd stayed on top of one of the greasiest poles in Taiwan politics for exactly one year - as head of President Chen Shui-bian's Cabinet. Yu's popularity rating rose to 55.6 percent, up 4.1 percent on November last year, and only 17.6 percent said they were disappointed with Yu's performance, down 3.9 percent from last year.
So, all things considered, he had reason to celebrate.
There was also speculation that Yu might run as vice president to Chen in the presidential elections, due next year. Yu has survived the about face he was forced to make over Taiwan's troubled agricultural credit unions and if he seemed to be happy and on top of things, he deserved to be.Combined ticket
That was before the opposition dropped their bombshell - that the two main opposition parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the People First Party (PFP), would run a joint ticket for the 2004 elections. The China Post
, Taiwan's leading English-language daily, had recently editorialised that it was a case of "one hat for two heads." In the 2000 election, Chen won with only 39 percent of the vote after the KMT's chairman Lien Chan and James Soong has split the anti DPP vote.
Soong broke from the KMT after falling out with former president Lee Teng-hui. Soong had been Lee's protege, until Lee felt threatened by Soong's growing popularity. As it was, the KMT sabotaged Soong's election chances when they released allegations that Soong had misused party funds while secretary general of the KMT.
For both Lien and Soong, much was at stake. Soong is a very seasoned politician with a lot of popularity from his time as Governor of Taiwan province. Lien was a poor third in the last presidential elections, and he had much at stake, not least the "face" that comes with being the nation's paramount leader.
He had the public reputation of being cold and aloof, and his "$30 lunch box" was famous, even if no proof had ever been brought to public light that he ever ate such a thing.
The average lunch box costs about $2.50, so the $30 lunch box, even if apocryphal, was powerful propaganda. Beyond doubt, Lien is a hard working, highly intelligent and disciplined person, but that's not enough in today's Taiwan - one must also be electable.
First indications on the agreement that had been reached between Soong and Lien - that Lien would head the ticket as president and Soong would be vice president - were that they would win in a landslide. But Chen has been hardly quiet in expressing the opinion that he had won once, and would win again. With a "jobs package" of all up, some $3.5 billion, he had plenty of largess to spread around.
The DPP's Achilles' heel is the economy and cross-strait ties with mainland China. At Chinese New Year, for the first time in 54 years, planes flew between mainland China and Taiwan. The charter flights still had to use an indirect route - touching down for half an hour in Hong Kong or Macao - but it was quicker and more convenient than previously.
The opposition is in favour of boosting relations with mainland China, if for no other reason that it would give the local economy a shot in the arm. On the economy, Chen is vulnerable, as Taiwan is in transition between an economy dependent on cheap labor to a mature economy where services and the "knowledge industry" are taking a front seat.
Taiwan's economic problems are similar to Australia's 20 years ago. Nothing much is working as it used to and it's hard to see any real future for Taiwan apart from mainland China.
The Government has a campaign to have global and regional head quarters based in Taiwan - which is having some success - but when the world's largest developing economy is in mainland China - and instead of getting to Shanghai in one-and-a-half hours, it takes seven or eight - then it's no longer such an attractive proposition.
Chen has done reasonably well as President, and the island hasn't descended into chaos as many had feared. The DPP is like Labor with the Whitlam Government - a lot to do after years in the wilderness, and plenty of people with pet policies that they want to enact - now!
His Cabinet has been somewhat of a revolving door, but the Government is getting on with governing, even if the international ratings agencies would like to see more reform of the banking system, the Chen Government has at least made a start.
Recent polls show that Chen is staging a turnaround and a KMT-PFP victory is no certainty. If nothing else, Chen is a fighter and despite numerous scandals, failings and personnel changes, he - and his Cabinet - might still be around in four year's time.