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Philip Bowring: Untangling Taiwan

International Herald Tribune

Published: June 12, 2006
TAIPEI 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 government.
Conversely, although 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 administration official.
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 constitution.
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.
Nonetheless, unless 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.
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