Order Code RS22791
January 22, 2008
Taiwan’s Legislative Elections, January 2008:
Implications for U.S. Policy
Specialist in Asian Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
On January 12, 2008, Taiwan’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party
(DPP), suffered a crushing defeat in elections for the Legislative Yuan, the national
legislature. The DPP won only 27 seats in the new 113-member body, while the
opposition Kuomintang Party (KMT) gained a hefty majority with 81 seats. Five
additional seats went to independent and smaller party candidates who are expected to
side often with KMT positions. The results appear to be a repudiation of DPP leader
and Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s emphasis of a radical pro-independence agenda
at the expense of domestic economic issues. Attention in Taiwan now is on the
upcoming presidential contest on March 22, 2008, pitting the leading DPP candidate
Frank Hsieh against the leading KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou.
This report will not be updated.
Taiwan’s January 12, 2008 legislative elections were the first held under new
electoral rules adopted in 2005 under an amendment to the Republic of China’s
(Taiwan’s) constitution. Under the old electoral rules, voters had only one ballot to cast
in multi-member districts where as many as 12 candidates competed against one another,
even if they were from the same party. This system functioned at a cost to party discipline
and was thought to encourage radicalism, with candidates able to be elected with as little
as five percent of the vote in a given district. The 2005 electoral changes halved the size
of the legislature to 113 members from its former size of 225 and increased the term of
office from three years to four. The new rules also instituted a new single-member district
system employing two ballots for voters, similar to systems used in Germany and Japan:
one to be cast for a candidate and one to be cast for a political party.
As expected, the new system has appeared to favor larger, well-organized parties and
to put smaller parties and fringe elements at a disadvantage. In the previous legislature,
the opposition KMT had held a bare majority by joining with a partner, the People First
Party (PFP), in a coalition that became known as the “Pan-Blue Coalition,” while the DPP
partnered with the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) in the “Pan-Green Coalition” of nearly
equal strength. But in the January 12th vote, the KMT emerged with a solid controlling
majority of 81 seats against the ruling DPP’s anemic win of 27 seats. The former
coalition partner parties, the PFP and TSU, were effectively wiped out under the new
electoral rules, suggesting the end, at least temporarily, of Pan-Blue/Pan-Green coalition
politics. Five seats were gained by independent and smaller party candidates, all of whom
are expected to side with KMT positions. While a KMT legislative victory was expected
under the new electoral rules, the wide margin surprised most analysts and dealt a serious
blow to DPP aspirations to be victorious in the March 22, 2008 presidential election.
President Chen Shui-bian stepped down as head of the DPP party, saying he took full
responsibility for his party’s loss. He is term-limited as Taiwan’s president and will be
stepping down in May 2008.
Adding to the DPP’s misfortune, voters also failed to pass two referendum measures
— one (a DPP measure) asking whether the government should attempt to seize assets the
KMT is alleged to have embezzled during its unbroken rule on the island from 19492000, and one (a KMT measure) asking whether the legislature should be given power to
investigate official corruption. The two referenda, which needed to reach a threshold of
50% of the participating electorate for passage, were seen as litmus tests for a more
controversial referendum, proposed by President Chen for the upcoming March 22
presidential election, asking whether Taiwan should apply to the United Nations for full
membership under the name “Taiwan” rather than its formal name of the Republic of
China.1 Beijing considers the U.N. referendum to be tantamount to a public poll on
Taiwan independence — a prospect China has vowed to prevent by force if necessary.
The United States has called Taiwan’s U.N. proposal “provocative.”
The KMT historically is a party of mainlanders who fled to Taiwan from mainland
China in 1949. It is politically conservative and strongly anti-communist. Although it is
credited with engineering Taiwan’s vibrant economic growth and transformation during
its more than 50-year rule on the island, the KMT’s inability to offer a clear and creative
vision for Taiwan’s future ultimately made it vulnerable to the pro-independence DPP
party, which was able to elect its candidate, Chen Shui-bian, to the presidency in elections
in 2000.2 Since then, the KMT has portrayed itself as a more responsible steward than the
DPP for Taiwan’s future. It has soundly criticized the DPP’s posture toward Beijing as
unnecessarily confrontational and has promised to replace it with a policy of engagement
and cooperation. The party also has gotten political mileage out of portraying President
Chen as insufficiently attentive to the needs of Taiwan’s economy and business
community — as in the economic disadvantages Taiwan business interests continue to
face due to Taiwan’s restrictions on contacts with mainland China.3
Implications for the March 2008 Presidential Election. The KMT’s
overwhelming victory in the legislative elections suggests that the party is now well
placed to win the presidency back from the DPP in the presidential election scheduled for
March 22, 2008. A KMT victory in March would leave both Taiwan’s legislature and the
The U.N. referendum expected to be voted on in March also has to meet the 50% threshold for
passage — a bar widely seen as out of reach for controversial measures.
The traditional KMT policy held that there was only one China, that Taiwan was part of China,
and that one day Taiwan would re-take the mainland and China would be reunified.
See CRS Report RL33510, Taiwan: Recent Developments and U.S. Policy Choices, by Kerry
executive in the hands of one party, ending the legislative-executive split in Taiwan’s
government that has created political gridlock throughout the Chen Administration.
Optimists suggest that this would lead to the kind of policy achievements that have eluded
President Chen. More pessimistic observers allege that this development could return
Taiwan to a quasi one-party state, leaving the DPP too weakened to function as the kind
of robust opposition voice that a vibrant democracy requires.
Others have warned against the temptation to see a “geo-strategic outcome” in what
they say is the very local and tactical nature of Taiwan’s legislative elections.4 They say
that the island-wide contest that will elect Taiwan’s next president will be a very different
process and that the electorate may seek to balance the overwhelming KMT legislative
victory by seeking to hand the presidency to the DPP. Still, even if the DPP is the
winning party in March’s presidential election and divided government continues, the
KMT’s substantial legislative margin — enough to veto legislative proposals or recall the
president — would appear to put the KMT in the driver’s seat of Taiwan policy.
Implications for the United States
While carefully stating they have no preferences in Taiwan’s political races, officials
in the Bush Administration have been vexed by President Chen Shui-bian’s unpredictable
political style, his confrontational tactics with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and
by the difficulty of getting substantive action out of Taiwan’s former grid-locked
legislature. As a result, U.S. policy may seem to be well-served by any developments that
could tend to calm Taiwan’s political waters and facilitate a mature policy discourse.
Such developments would appear to include a more effective legislative process.
But more skeptical observers point out that while the KMT’s new legislative supermajority will give it a stronger voice, Taiwan’s grid-locked legislature also had a KMT
coalition majority. Mere numbers, according to this view, do not necessarily translate into
compromise, political unity, or an active policy agenda. Even while the DPP’s new
chairman, Frank Hsieh, has promised to pursue a less confrontational approach toward
China, if the DPP is victorious in the March presidential election it is likely to continue
to embrace the pro-independence views that its radical base supports. Therefore,
confrontational politics and stalemate still could continue in the event of a DPP victory
in March’s presidential contest.
Others have suggested that there may be different potential complications should the
KMT win the presidency in March 2008 and gain full control of the Taiwan government.
They point out that the KMT has long pledged to improve Taiwan’s relations with the
PRC, supporting closer cultural and economic ties, and that a KMT-dominated
government is thought to be welcomed by Chinese leaders in Beijing.5 While any
improvements in cross-strait relations are likely to support short-term U.S. goals, some
Yates, Steve, comments during a conference at the Heritage Foundation on “Taiwan’s
Parliamentary Elections: Who Won, Who Lost, and What it Means,” January 15, 2008.
Lague, David, “Taiwan election may ease tensions with China,” The New York Times, January
hold that the United States over the longer term will not benefit from a Taiwan whose
economic interests and cultural identity are increasingly intertwined with the PRC.6
John Tkacik, of the Heritage Foundation, is one proponent of this view.