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Key Economic Data 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2002)
Millions of US $  406,000    
GNI per capita
 US $ 18,000
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

Books on Taiwan

Update No: 093 - (26/01/12)

Enter the Dragon
On 16 January, one week before the lunar New Year holiday, the Taiwanese went to the polls in a double-header election. Not only were they voting on a new president who would lead the country for the next four years but also for a new legislative assembly.

Incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou bested his main opposition party, Taiwan’s Democratic progressive Party (DPP) rival, Tsai Ing-wen, to regain the presidency for the next four years. His Kuomintang (KMT) Party retained control of the legislature. It was not that Ma won that surprised most people; rather, it was his margin of victory.
Ahead of the vote, the opinion polls had been predicting a very tight race with margins between the two main contenders too close to call. Indeed those soundings conducted in the weeks leading up to the election put Tsai Ing-wen, who was hoping to become Taiwan’s first female president, ahead by a nose.

But it was not to be. The only poll that counts is the one held on the day of the election and in that poll, Ma gained 51.6 per cent of the total vote compared to 45.6 per cent for Tsai – a margin of six per cent.

Voter turnout was 74.38 per cent or 13,452,016 of Taiwan’s 18,086,455 eligible voters. This was less than the turnout for the 2008 presidential election at which time 76.33 per cent of voters cast a ballot.

In the poll for the legislature, the KMT maintained its majority, albeit with a reduced margin. The DPP made gains – although not as big a gain as it had hoped for – as did the smaller parties, the pro-independence (from China) Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) and the right-wing People’s First Party (PFP) of former Taiwan Governor, James Soong, who was the third candidate standing in the presidential race.

The total number of seats in Taiwan’s unicameral legislature is 113. Seventy-three of these seats are held by single constituency members voted in from 73 electoral districts. The balance is made up of legislators voted in on a country-wide basis. Three seats are reserved for Plains Aboriginal voters and a further three seats are for Mountain Aboriginal voters. Voters cast a separate ‘at-large’ ballot for their preferred political party with each party that gains more than five per cent of the vote being allocated seats in proportion to the strength of its poll showing.

In total, the KMT secured 64 seats in the new legislature. This is 17 less than the seats held previously. The DPP increased its representation by 13 seats to a total of 40. The TSU and the PFP each gained three seats. Although it did not meet the threshold for representation, Taiwan’s Green Party won 230,000 ‘at-large’ votes or more than four times the number gained in 2008.

While President Ma expressed himself well pleased with the outcome, there are a few warning signs that will give him reason to pause as he savours his victory. Overall, support for the KMT was down compared to four years ago. Aside from the loss of a number of legislative seats, support for Ma at 51.6 per cent was well below the 58.5 per cent he achieved in 2008. It was hardly an overwhelming mandate.

There have been a number of reasons put forward as to why the predictions of a Tsai victory proved well short of the mark. Firstly, in the opinion surveys conducted ahead of the election, PFP candidate, James Soong appeared to be garnering around eight per cent of the vote. On the day, however, he achieved less than three per cent. The most plausible explanation is that, realising their candidate could not win, Soong supporters switched their vote to Ma rather than risk a DPP victory. A second explanation is that the poll was set one week ahead of the lunar New Year holiday. This meant that a number of DPP supporters as well as university students (who traditionally tend towards the DPP) who were from the DPP heartland in the south of Taiwan but working or studying in the north were unable to get home to cast their vote. There is no provision for absentee balloting in Taiwan.

Then there is the vocal support given to Ma by the business sector and especially Taiwanese entrepreneurs working in China. The level of public support for Ma and his ‘pro-China’ policy was unusual and appears to have been orchestrated by the Chinese authorities. There are reports that China cancelled visits to Taiwan by a number of its citizens ahead of the election; in part this was seen to ensure that its own nationals were not tainted by Taiwan’s exercise in democracy; but it also ensured that Taiwanese nationals working in China had plenty of time (and plenty of aircraft seats) to get back to Taiwan to cast their ballot and enjoy a long holiday break.

All of these factors could have been at work of course and probably were. But finally, there were those factors that were internal to the DPP and the Tsai campaign strategy. Ms. Tsai campaigned on the theme of ‘Taiwan’s first woman president’. Sadly, her theme failed to resonate with voters and especially female voters. In a survey conducted ahead of the election, the data showed that 43.6 per cent of women voters supported Ma while only 28.6 per cent favoured Tsai. Overall, less than one third of voters (male and female) identified with her theme. Perhaps there should be no surprise here since from his days as Mayor of Taipei, Ma was considered to be Taiwan’s version of George Clooney, never missing an opportunity to be photographed in singlet and running shorts – especially around election time.

Beyond that, it appears that many voters were wary of Tsai’s China policy, especially after she failed to endorse the ‘1992 consensus’ that is the cornerstone of the agreements signed with China under the first Ma Administration.

Voters, it seems, cast their vote for certainty over uncertainty and perhaps that is no surprise. Politics has always taken a backseat to economics on the island of Taiwan and nothing has changed.

No doubt mindful that his party actually lost support, Ma has promised a cautious approach to further cross-straits ties during his second term, to revive the economy and build a clean government. He has also promised to ‘make adjustments’ to the judicial system although he has emphasised that he will not interfere in specific cases. That statement will give cold comfort to imprisoned former president Chen Shui-bian, although with the safety of four more years and the probability that the ties with China will become irreversible over this time, he may relent and release Chen at some stage – but only when he is considered to be no longer a threat.

As for Ms Tsai, she has resigned as chair of the DPP taking responsibility for the electoral loss and her resignation will take effect from March 1.

As Taiwan says goodbye to the docile ‘rabbit’ and embraces the powerful ‘dragon’ – the emblem of the Chinese emperors – the year ahead will be, at the very least, an interesting one.

And in Beijing, which so far has said very little publicly on the election across the Taiwan Straits, President Hu Jintao will feel vindicated that his policy of embracing Taiwan economically has won victories where before the policy of confrontation only drove Taiwanese into the arms of the DPP. When all is said and done, the real victor in this election may well prove to be Beijing.

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