The Battle for the Legislative Yuan and Taiwan's Soul

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Thursday October 15, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The Ides of January are approaching and with them come two national, major elections crucial to Taiwan's future, namely that for the presidency and that for the majority control of the Legislative Yuan. From 2008, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has held both the presidency and control of the Legislature. However change is in the air.

Look first at how the battle for the presidency is shaping up. Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) continues to be the odds on favorite to win this battle. A change here would bring no big surprise. The transfer of power in the presidency has happened twice before in the nation's history and it looks likely to happen again.

The KMT candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, who described herself as a brick meant to attract jade, failed in that effort. As a result, the party has dumped the brick and put Eric Chu on the line with only a few months to go. Chu's poll figures are no better than Hung's however. Some, unwilling on principle to vote for a DPP candidate, find themselves at a loss since they also do not want to be responsible for what is left. They may choose not to vote at all.

In the battle for the presidency, James Soong and his People First Party (PFP) pose no threat. If anything, Soong provides disgruntled KMT voters with a more palpable alternative. They can remember how in 2000, the KMT's downfall began when Lien Chan, a different brick that aspired to be jade, insisted on running against the then popular Soong. At that time Soong would have easily kept the KMT in power if Lien had dropped out. Now however, Soong will be in the race simply to attract enough voters to help put the PFP to get some at-large seats in the more important battle for the Legislative Yuan.

Yes, the Legislative Yuan or Legislature is where the real battle for Taiwan's soul will be realized. Since the KMT has always controlled this assembly in the past, victory here will not be easy for the DPP. It is a struggle with many nuances.

First, examine the makeup of the Legislature's 113 seats. 73 member seats are elected in districts, 6 are allocated to party choice by aboriginals and the remaining 34 at-large seats come from the separate party vote of which parties must gain over 5 per cent of the total to get seats. In 2012, the KMT won 44 district seats and 16 at-large seats to the DPP's 27 district and 13 at-large seats. The remaining at-large seats fell to the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) and PFP.

By having enough votes to take the presidency, the DPP will certainly also gain an advantage over the KMT in the at-large party vote, but the district seats are another story. Can the DPP take enough districts to overcome the current 44-27 advantage of the KMT?

In short, to effectively control the Legislature, the DPP will need a total of at least 57 seats compared to its current total of 40 seats. Therefore, the DPP must take more districts in Taiwan's middle and northern areas where it has not done well in the past. Voting trends support a change here. The 2014 November elections demonstrated a clear shift with a green tide moving north and voters no longer voting on past party loyalties. Nonetheless, for further advantage, the DPP must also find a way to gain at least one or two of the aboriginal seats.

Can all this be done? The KMT problems have been exacerbated under Ma Ying-jeou. As a KMT president who has always had a KMT majority in the Legislative Yuan, Ma's performance has been dismal. He has effectively destroyed the KMT myth of being the party that knew how to manage the economy; and the public after living nearly 8 years under Ma's ineptitude, can see that the KMT has no magic and it has no leader.

This is one of many reasons that KMT district candidates are at a disadvantage. Few if any will want Taiwan's current unpopular president to stump for them. Few even want to be seen with the KMT presidential candidate, Eric Chu. They are choosing to go it alone, yet they must still push to get sufficient funds from the party's central office to help their campaigns. The DPP candidates on the other hand can hope for a coattail effect and can bask in the glow of campaign visits and support from their presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen.

In this mix, comes the nuance of the word "unification." That word will hang like an albatross on the neck of any candidate who dares to suggest support for unification with China. While legislative elections are generally more influenced by local needs, Taiwan's current status of being under military threat from China makes unification a word to avoid. For KMT candidates, especially the "benshen" KMT, they will have to explain why their party, the KMT has always had the reputation of being pro-unification.

Independent and small party legislative candidates are at a disadvantage in district races but they can nonetheless hope to gain at-large seats if they get over 5 per cent of the separate party vote. They can capitalize on both national dissatisfaction and a desire to have other voices in the Legislature. In 2012 for example the TSU gained 3 at-large seats and the PFP got 2.

Finally the DPP must also stress that a DPP president will need a DPP legislature. Voters can easily remember how the nation was stagnant in the eight years of Chen Shui-bian's presidency because the KMT controlled Legislature opposed him simply out of spite.

In this election, the People's Republic of China will no doubt be silent. They have learned their lesson and know that any actions on their part will only make things worse for KMT unification candidates. They may resort to subterfuge, but openly they will say little. Observers in Hong Kong and the other side of the Taiwan Strait might however be able to learn from Taiwan on what democracy is about and how candidates must answer to the public needs.

These are the drawn battle lines, and the stakes are high. Nonetheless, with two decades of experience under their belt, Taiwan voters have become more discerning. They will do their part, but the real challenge will still be for the DPP to prove that they can represent the soul of Taiwan. Are they up to the task? And can they gain 57 seats in the Legislature to finish the job? Watch for January! ***

*** (As footnote; Tsai did win the presidency and the DPP won 68 seats in the Legislative Yuan to control it for the first time in history.)