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Taiwan Readies for Legislative Elections - 2001-11-30


Politicians are campaigning all out for Taiwan's legislative election Saturday, with some going door to door to win votes. The election may end the Kuomintang's dominance of the legislature, but probably will not hand a majority to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

A hoarse President Chen Shui-bian campaigns for his Democratic Progressive Party candidates this week. Saturday's election will decide whether he can secure smoother passage of his legislative agenda.

For President Chen, much is at stake. His victory in last year's presidential poll ended 55 years of Kuomintang rule, but the KMT controls the legislature, making it difficult for the president to push his agenda.

The DPP aims to increase its numbers in the 225 seat national Legislature from the current 66 seats. Of the seats, 176 are up for direct election, while the others are awarded based on proportional representation. However, voter surveys indicate no party is likely to win an outright legislative majority.

The DPP has historically garnered 30 to 40 percent of the vote in elections.

Professor Yi-ching Sun, dean of the Graduate Institute of Political Science at Taiwan's Fokuang University, says this election shifts the emphasis from individual candidates to the parties. Voter dissatisfaction with the divided Legislature puts the focus on whether one party will hold a majority. "I feel this time Taiwanese voters tend to vote for parties, not individual candidates," he said.

He points to another factor behind the trend, Taiwan's economic recession and rising unemployment. He says voters hold the government responsible for the weak economy.

All the political parties have expressed concern that voters are turned off by campaign mudslinging and legislative dithering, while Taiwan's exports and economic growth continue to slide. The DPP says the opposition blocks needed economic changes, while the KMT blames the administration because it has not appointed KMT experts to the cabinet.

Professor Sun notes that in addition to fighting each other, the DPP and the KMT risk losing votes to splinter party candidates, such as the Taiwan Solidarity Union, or TSU, and the People First Party. As a result, the DPP and KMT are trying to appear flexible and cooperative.

Both say they are willing to ally with other parties after the election. A legislative coalition may be necessary for the government to get its legislation through if the DPP fails to win an outright majority.

This sort of alliance would be new territory for Taiwan's still young democracy. The DPP hopes to win enough seats to avoid making alliances.

As part of that effort, President Chen's administration is taking advantage of its incumbent position. The justice minister is overseeing an effort to curb vote buying. During the final ten days of the campaign, when political TV ads are banned, President Chen has frequently appeared in government-sponsored public service announcements highlighting the anti-sleaze effort. The public service announcements coincidentally remind voters that the DPP has taken action on one of his major campaign pledges last year.

Through spots like this, the DPP has worked to portray this election as an opportunity for voters to build on the transition from KMT to DPP rule that started in last year's presidential poll.

To neutralize the issue of unification versus independence that featured in previous elections, the KMT is trying to appeal to both voters with longstanding ties to Taiwan and those who came to the island in 1949 after communists defeated the KMT in China's civil war. Some political analysts say issues of provincial heritage have taken a back seat this time to economic and other concerns.

For voters, Professor Sun says the actual number of seats the parties win may be of secondary interest. "If no party gets a majority, people in Taiwan still hope that the parties will start working together," he said.