Order Code RS22853
Updated April 10, 2008
Taiwan’s 2008 Presidential Election
Specialist in Asian Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
In a large turnout on March 22, 2008, voters in Taiwan elected as president Mr. Ma
Ying-jeou of the Nationalist (KMT) Party. Mr. Ma out-polled rival candidate Frank
Hsieh, of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), by a 2.2 million
vote margin of 58% to 42%. Coming on the heels of the KMT’s sweeping victory in
January’s legislative elections, the result appears to be a further repudiation of DPP
leader and Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s eight-year record of governance.
President-elect Ma, who will begin his tenure on May 20, 2008, has promised to
improve Taiwan’s economic performance, to improve Taiwan’s damaged relations
with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and to address any annoyances in TaiwanU.S. relations arising from the Chen Administration. This report will not be updated.
While many had expected a victory on March 22, 2008, for KMT presidential
candidate Ma Ying-jeou and his running mate, Vincent Siew, the size of the party’s
winning margin in Taiwan’s presidential election (2.2 million votes) was a surprise to
most outside observers and even to some in the party itself.1 Emphasizing a platform of
economic improvement and better relations with the PRC and the United States, Mr. Ma
did respectably even in southern and rural districts heavily dominated by the DPP in the
past. His ticket’s wide margin of victory echoed a similarly dramatic KMT victory in the
January 2008 legislative elections, where the party gained a majority of 81 seats in the
new 113-seat body compared to the DPP ‘s anemic 27 seats.2 When Ma assumes office
Based on the author’s conversations in Taiwan on March 23-24, 2008, with both KMT party
officials and with foreign observers.
DPP candidates received 37% of the votes in the 2008 legislative elections, which were held
under new rules that favored the KMT. See CRS Report RS22791, Taiwan’s Legislative
Elections, January 2008: Implications for U.S. Policy, by Kerry Dumbaugh.
on May 20, 2008, the KMT will have regained solid control of the Taiwan government.
The electoral chances of the DPP’s presidential ticket — candidate Frank Hsieh and
his running mate, Su Tseng-chang — were burdened by what was widely regarded as the
poor performance of the incumbent President Chen Shui-bian (also a member of the
DPP), corruption scandals in the party, and by Chen’s increasing emphasis on a
controversial pro-independence agenda. Some observers felt that the DPP had lost the
opportunity to make critical adjustments in its policies after public dissatisfaction with its
performance became clear in 2005. Instead of moving to where the voters were,
according to this view, the DPP had tried to move the voters to it, a strategy that did not
serve it well in the 2008 elections.3
Adding to the DPP’s March defeat was its failure to pass a controversial referendum,
a high priority for President Chen, asking whether Taiwan should apply for U.N.
membership under the name “Taiwan.” Although 94% of those voting for the DPP
referendum voted in favor, this referendum as well as a KMT alternative each failed to
reach the threshold of 50% of the electorate turnout that was required for the measures to
be considered for passage. Beijing had considered Chen’s referendum in particular to be
tantamount to a public poll on independence — a prospect the PRC has threatened to
prevent by force if necessary. The referendum also had been problematic for the United
States, which had called Chen’s proposal “provocative.”
Political Background to Where We Are Now
Historically, the KMT on Taiwan began as a party of mainlanders from the Republic
of China (ROC) government that fled to Taiwan in 1949 after Chinese communist forces
triumphed in China’s civil war. Although it is credited with engineering Taiwan’s
economic growth and transformation during its more than 50-year rule on the island, the
KMT for decades remained associated with an increasingly untenable political premise:
that its military forces one day would re-take the mainland and re-unify China under the
ROC government. As more countries recognized the PRC government and severed
official relations with the ROC on Taiwan, the KMT’s inability to offer a clear and more
creative vision for Taiwan’s political future made it vulnerable to challenge. In 2000, the
fledgling, pro-independence DPP party was able to elect to the presidency its candidate,
Chen Shui-bian, with a bare plurality of the votes cast in a three-way race. Chen was reelected to a second term by a slim majority in the 2004 presidential election.4
Chen’s tenure was hampered from the outset — first, by systemic weaknesses in
Taiwan’s political infrastructure that give limited power to either the legislative or
executive, and second, by a divided government in which the opposition, a KMT-led
Shelley Rigger, Brown Associate Professor of East Asian Politics, Davidson College, in a
discussion roundtable on Taiwan, March 23, 2008.
The day before the 2004 presidential election, President Chen and his running mate were shot
and wounded as they campaigned; the Central Election Commission later declared 327,297 of
the votes invalid due to polling place irregularities. The Chen-Lu ticket won by a margin of
29,518 out of over 13 million votes cast — a result the KMT challenged as suspicious and tainted
by the “shooting incident” and the invalidated votes. See CRS Report RS21770, Taiwan in
2004: Elections, Referenda, and Other Democratic Challenges, by Kerry Dumbaugh.
coalition, retained a mere finger-tip grip on legislative control. Many of Chen’s policy
initiatives were blocked by the legislature, and he had insufficient power or political
support to surmount this. Moreover, the PRC rebuffed Chen’s early efforts to improve
cross-strait relations, citing the DPP’s pro-independence platform as an impediment to
such progress. As a result, an emphasis on Taiwan nationalism, identity, and de-facto
sovereign status became centerpieces of much of Chen’s eight years in office — a
decision that took a toll on U.S.-Taiwan relations and contributed to much divisiveness
in Taiwan’s political scene.5
From the time it was voted out of power in 2000, the KMT has sought to portray
itself as a more responsible steward than the DPP for Taiwan’s future. The party gained
political mileage from portraying President Chen as insufficiently attentive to the needs
of Taiwan’s economy and business community. KMT Candidate Ma pledged to revive
Taiwan’s economy by negotiating a comprehensive economic agreement with the PRC
and seeking to reduce restrictions on cross-strait links, such as direct air flights and
financial matters, that limit Taiwan’s ability to engage in the booming Chinese economy.
The KMT also soundly criticized President Chen’s posture toward China as provocatively
confrontational and promised to replace it with a policy of engagement and cooperation
with Beijing. Still, the KMT was forced to find ways to accommodate itself to the appeal
of the DPP’s pro-independence political views, which resonated with a not insignificant
portion of the electorate. In an attempt to walk this fine line during his 2008 campaign,
Ma Ying-jeou promised that, in addition to economic prosperity, as president he would
advocate “three noes”: no negotiations on unification with the PRC; no pursuit of de jure
independence; and no use of force by either side.
Domestic Political Implications
For the KMT. The decisive KMT election wins in 2008 provide new opportunities
for the government to overcome the political gridlock of the past few years. Experts
watching the Taiwan political scene hold that in the last eight years the KMT has moved
toward a new political centrism and has adapted its policies to reflect the preferences of
Taiwan’s middle class.6 This shift appears to have paid off for the party not only in the
2008 legislative and presidential election victories, but in other recent election successes
for county and city government leadership, the majority of which the KMT also now
controls. For some, then, the KMT presidential victory was as much a “win” for the party
as it was a vote of no-confidence for the Chen Administration.
President-elect Ma himself has a reputation for thoughtful conciliation, and many
observers have suggested that his early choices will be important determinants in the
course Taiwan follows in the next few years. For instance, observers wonder whether Ma
will be able to restrain those in his party who may want to drive home the KMT’s success
by revisiting the failures of the Chen Administration, or instead will chart a more
charitable and forward-looking policy direction that will help to heal Taiwan’s political
wounds. They will watch to see if he appoints old guard KMT members to all the
important posts, or broadens his government to include younger party members and DPP
See CRS Report RL33684, Underlying Strains in Taiwan-U.S. Political Relations, by Kerry
Shelley Rigger in a conference in Taiwan, March 23, 2008.
and other non-KMT representatives. They wonder whether he will be able to craft
economic and political improvements in relations with China without being seen as
having compromised Taiwan’s interests to those of the PRC. With the KMT’s solid
majority now in every aspect of government, there will be no doubt about where
responsibility lies for any perceived “failures” in these early tests.
For the DPP. Analysts suggest that the DPP did not make the kind of centrist
adjustments to public sentiment that the KMT made in recent years, instead staying close
to the pro-independence interests of its core supporters. In the wake of effectively having
been crushed in two electoral outings in 2008, the party now is facing a period of
reassessment and re-building as it considers how to broaden its electoral appeal and
maintain its vitality in the face of KMT dominance.7 How it succeeds is seen as
important, since many believe both U.S. interests and the health of Taiwan’s democratic
development would be better served by a robust opposition rather than an anemic one.
In the aftermath of the election, views have been mixed about the DPP’s near-term
prospects. There are different views how robust the party’s apparent 42% electoral
support is: will it shrink or even collapse if the KMT can deliver improved economic
performance and a stronger international role for Taiwan, or is it strong enough at 42%
to remain a viable opposition force? Some fear that the party’s hard-core, proindependence base may blame moderates within the party for the 2008 losses and will
seek to strengthen the party’s hand by purging or marginalizing moderate members and
re-emphasizing the party’s radical core values.8 Others believe that the DPP’s future
would be tenuous with such a narrow approach, and that the only fertile ground for
carving out a greater than 42% electoral margin is within Taiwan’s political center. They
suggest that the DPP seek to broaden its base while working harder in the interim to
supervise KMT performance.9
For Democratic and Political Development. For some, Taiwan’s 2008
presidential election means that Taiwan’s democratic development has been validated by
having passed the “Huntington test” for established democracies — that is, having two
successful, consecutive changes of government through a free and peaceful electoral
process.10 Observers who may have harbored concern about how the DPP’s supporters
would take such a defeat were reassured greatly by the gracious concession speech of
Frank Hsieh and the widespread apparent DPP acceptance of the results of the democratic
process. To some watching the March 22 election, the Taiwan electorate also appeared
to have attained a new level of maturity and sophistication, apparently motivated more in
Frank Hsieh himself cited the need for a thorough party reassessment, saying “we must let the
sound of reform ring out.” (Reuters, “Taiwan’s DPP chairman quits after election defeat,” March
26, 2008.) See also a statement to this effect by Shelley Rigger, “Taiwan ruling party to retool
after another defeat,” Reuters, March 24, 2008.
Observers of Taiwan elections reported this view from conversations with DPP moderates.
Suggestions of Larry Diamond, conference in Taiwan on the implications of the election for
Taiwan’s democratic future, March 23, 2008.
Samuel P. Huntington defined this process in his book The Third Wave: Democratization in
the Late Twentieth Century, Norman and London, 1991. Taiwan qualifies by virtue of the DPP
having wrested power from the KMT in 2000 and the KMT having regained power in 2008.
its election decisions by pragmatic calculations of governmental performance than by
more emotional issues involving U.N. membership or sovereignty issues.11 In sum, many
have welcomed the election results as a sign that Taiwan’s democracy has continued to
ripen and mature.
Implications for Taiwan’s PRC and U.S. Relationships
For Relations with the PRC. By most accounts, Ma’s election presents a unique
opportunity to lay a new framework in Taiwan-PRC relations — one that moves toward
cross-strait improvements and new understandings, and away from the more
confrontational policies of the past. Ma will be faced with multiple delicate balancing
acts. He will have to improve cross-strait relations — and Taiwan’s economic
opportunities on the mainland — while not appearing overly eager to core DPP supporters
who worry that he will sell out Taiwan’s interests in pursuit of mainland ties. He also will
have to strike a balance between those in the electorate who favor unification with China;
those who argue for a strong defense for Taiwan and the continuation of U.S. weapons
purchases; and those who urge significant improvements in Taiwan’s relations with
Despite the challenges that Ma faces, many believe that the election results have
placed the real burden for an improved Taiwan-PRC situation squarely on Beijing.
According to some observers, the Taiwan electorate’s choice of Ma and its inability to
pass the two referenda to which Beijing objected are seen as a first step toward cross-strait
improvements. Having railed against President Chen for eight years while wooing the
KMT, the PRC now will have to follow through with creative initiatives with the Ma
regime if it is to capitalize on the election results. The opportunity would appear to be too
good to miss. Rebuffing a new and more conciliatory Taiwan government could damage
the PRC’s credibility that it wishes to pursue a peaceful and constructive solution for
cross-strait ties. Any perceived PRC reluctance also could serve to revitalize U.S. and
congressional opposition to the PRC’s Taiwan policy — opposition which has remained
muted in recent years in part because of mutual U.S.-PRC problems with Chen.
Observers suggest there are a number of options now for Beijing to make a
meaningful gesture toward Taiwan that would not impinge on PRC sovereignty claims.
These could include a willingness to invite (or to be willing to discuss inviting) Taiwan
to be a “meaningful participant” in the World Health Organization (WHO); an invitation
to restart cross-strait talks on a mutually acceptable basis; a halt to petulant posturing
against Taiwan in APEC and other multilateral organizations; or a suspension of Taiwanfocused military exercises and other military maneuvers in the strait, among other acts.
In the wake of the election, PRC Premier Wen Jiabao has expressed hope that crossstrait talks can resume quickly on the basis of the “1992 consensus.”12 Unfortunately, past
Many U.S. and other foreign election observers were in Taiwan before and after the March 22
election, including this author. This report draws heavily on these personal observations and
Purportedly, the “1992 consensus” was a mutual agreement between the PRC and Taiwan
governments on a formula of “one-China, two interpretations.” President Chen during his tenure
experience demonstrates that the PRC often is unable to adopt creative and flexible policy
initiatives at times of great tension — as is currently the case with the crackdown against
demonstrations in Tibet — or when there is intense pressure to be seen to be successful
— as there is now in the months leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
In addition, some have suggested that Beijing remains concerned about potential
controversies that could arise during the remainder of President Chen’s term, before Ma
takes office on May 20, 2008. For these reasons, many feel that, at least in the short term,
Beijing may be unable to make an important overture to the incoming Taiwan regime.
For U.S. Relations. U.S. officials say they have had strong ties with Taiwan’s
DPP government and had developed a considerable network of working economic and
military ties with Taiwan under President Chen. But such problems of trust had
developed between President Chen himself and U.S. officials that many believe the
bilateral atmosphere can only improve under the new KMT leadership.13 President-elect
Ma has said he will place a high priority on repairing any residual difficulties in Taiwan’s
relations with the United States. Still, some observers in the past have expressed concern
that the United States may have underestimated the importance of the sea change in KMT
thinking that arose from the visits to the PRC by senior KMT officials beginning in
2005.14 Those visits, they say, may have given pro-China interests in the KMT a new,
alternate vision for Taiwan’s future. If this concern is founded, one consequence could
be the growing inurement of the KMT to U.S. pressure or interests. For instance, Taiwan
could resist U.S. pressure that it increase military spending on the grounds that such
expenditures are too high, too confrontational, and may be unnecessary in light of
potential improvements in cross-strait interactions. Some worry then that the KMT,
driven in large part by economic imperatives and pressures, could reach an
accommodation with Beijing that ultimately may damage U.S. regional interests.
In other respects, the continued success in 2008 of Taiwan’s democratic development
is a welcome validation of U.S. goals and values. It also further emphasizes the unique
and delicate challenge for U.S. policy that Taiwan poses: our ninth largest trading partner
with a vibrant and free democratic government on an island claimed by the PRC, with
which the United States has no diplomatic relations but does have defense commitments,
and whose independence from China U.S. officials have said they do not support.15 Under
the new KMT government, then, the United States will be faced with challenges familiar
from past years, including decisions on new arms sales; how to accommodate requests for
visits to the United States by Ma and other senior Taiwan officials; the level of U.S.
relations with the Ma government; whether to pursue closer economic ties; and what role,
if any, Washington should play in cross-strait relations.
suggested the agreement was really a “one-China” policy that compromised Taiwan sovereignty.
On March 28, 2008, Ray Burghardt, Chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT)
which represents American interests in Taiwan, expressed confidence that the United States
would have “excellent” relations with the incoming government.
This was a view expressed to the author by one U.S. AIT official in Taiwan in 2006.
For background on the highly nuanced and complex U.S. policy on this issue, see RL30341,
China/Taiwan: Evolution of the “One China” Policy — Key Statements from Washington,
Beijing, and Taipei, by Shirley Kan.