The theatrical aspects of Taiwan politics can be an embarrassment
for those who see the island republic as a beacon of liberal
democracy. But perhaps more worrying is not what happens on the
public stage but the behind-the-scene deals which inhibit good
cross-straits tensions with the mainland might seem to be
exacerbated by Taiwan's high volume domestic politics in practice,
these tend to create compromises as individual and factional
interests override ideology.
The theatrics will
remain on display. President Chen Shui-bian is on the rack following
exposure of the alleged misdeeds, including insider trading and
corruption, of associates, including a son-in-law and a senior
That these came to light
is a tribute to the open nature of Taiwan's media and the ease of
access to information.
Chen has sought to
shield himself and his party by handing over government functions to
Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang, confining himself to the (still very
considerable) responsibilities conferred on the president by the
This week the
legislature, in which the opposition "Pan-Blue" coalition of the
Kuomintang (KMT) and People First Party (PFP) has a majority, will
be debating a motion to "recall" the president. A period of
political instability is forecast and the stock market has taken its
cue by falling even faster than most.
In practice, however, it
looks unlikely that Chen will be ousted. That would require a
two-thirds majority in the legislature, which the opposition does
not have, followed by a referendum which could well not succeed.
The opposition is
actually happy to have a lame- duck president, as they see this
enhancing the already strong likelihood that they can win
legislative elections due late next year and the presidential
election in early 2008.
If Chen was forced out
he would be succeeded by Vice President Annette Lu, who is not
especially popular within the factionalized Democratic Progressive
Party, and whose outspoken views would aggravate Beijing as much as
Chen has done.
At the same time, Prime
Minister Su hopes to use his enhanced profile to increase his chance
of being the DPP candidate in 2008. Pragmatism now requires that he
moves the party toward the center ground by acepting regular
cross-straits air links and mainland tourism.
The Pan-Blue team is
hardly united either. Leading the charge against Chen has been PFP
leader James Soong, a man once associated with the money politics of
the old KMT.
A master self-publicist,
Soong is threatening to run for mayor of Taipei, which he can only
win if the KMT withdraws its candidate. If he does not get the
mayorship, he could again run for president and thwart the hopes of
KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou by splitting the Blue vote, as he did in the
2000 elections which brought Chen to office. Ma, with his clean
image, is more popular with the public than with the machine
politicians of the KMT.
The DPP administration
has been undistinguished, and Chen's attempts to play the Taiwan
identity card have pleased few at home and annoyed Washington.
But the president has
been hamstrung by lack of a majority in the legislature. And the
legislature itself has become the playground of individuals and
factions promoting themselves more than their party policies. Deals
are done secretly in legislative committees so that, according to
American Chamber of Commerce executive director, Richard Vuylsteke,
"conflicts of interests are shielded from public scrutiny."
Indeed, in a recent
report the American Chamber accused legislators of intervention in
bidding processes, regulatory issues and law enforcement - charges
reflected in the lack of competition, outdated rules and slow pace
of the financial sector.
It is possible that
things will improve. The size of the legislature is to be cut back
next year and the proximity of legislative and presidential
elections will probably mean that uncooperative "cohabitation" will
not be necessary.
legislators and their parties willingly submit to the kind of
transparency they are demanding of Chen and the executive, Taiwan's
democratic experiment will be seriously flawed, and its economy, now
overly dependent on its extraordinarily dynamic electronics
industry, held back.
This is at least as
important an issue for Taiwan as whether and when there are direct
links with the mainland.