Taiwan closer to reunification

Despite Taiwan’s pro-China opposition landslide win in the weekend legislative elections, Beijing remains anxious about the outcome of the Mar. 22 presidential vote, anticipating surprise last-hour twists in an already fiercely contested race. Saturday’s voting saw the ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) defeated by the pro-unification Nationalist party, the Kuomintang, stirring hopes in Beijing that DPP’s eight-year rule might come to an end.

The poll has been watched closely as a gauge of public support for President Chen Shui-bian’s drive to boost Taiwan’s separate identity and formalise its de facto independence from Beijing over the last 60 years. China, which regards the self-governing island as a renegade province, stopped short of commenting officially on the outcome of the elections, apparently for fear of bestowing unwarranted attention on what it considers “local elections”.

But Chinese academics have been warning that the Kuomintang still faces steep odds to secure a victory in March despite their landmark win Saturday. The KMT and its allies captured 86 seats in the 113-member parliament, compared to just 27 for Chen’s DPP. Taiwan polls have underestimated DPP support in the past and analysts believe it is still possible for the Kuomintang to lose in March. Mainland China analysts have always alleged that DPP’s narrow victory in the 2004 presidential elections was at least partially the result of a mysterious election-eve shooting, which caused a swell of sympathy votes for the injured Chen and led to his razor-thin re-election.

“Chen Shui-bian is about to step down but he has still managed to steal the show from the two main contenders for the presidential post,” says Taiwan Straits observer, Wang Yiwei. “He knows how to drive up public support by using the ‘referendum card’.” True to his pro-independence agenda over the years, Chen has pushed for a controversial referendum in March, at the time of presidential elections, on whether the island should apply to join the United Nations under the name of Taiwan, rather than its formal name, the Republic of China.

Ahead of the legislative elections last week Chen also warned voters that handing victory to the Kuomintang could lead to reunification with China “anytime soon”. Kuomintang’s presidential hopeful, Ma Ying-jeou, a former Taipei mayor, has said he would work to improve ties with China if elected. “If the Kuomintang won, then reunification with China could be realised anytime soon,” Chen told reporters at the DDP’s headquarters. “Should that happen, Taiwan could become another Hong Kong or Macao”. Chen’s United Nation membership bid has outraged Beijing, which regards any move by Taiwan to sconsolidate its self-identity and sovereignty as an attempt to change the cross-strait status quo.

Washington, an informal ally of Taiwan and it biggest arms supplier, has told Taipei that it does not want the island to hold such a referendum because it may raise tension across the Taiwan Strait. Speaking at a state department press conference in late December Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the planned referendum as “provocative”. “It promises no real benefits for the people of Taiwan on the international stage,” she was quoted as saying. — IPS