Cablegate: Taiwan Presidential Election: Explaining Ma's

DE RUEHIN #0440/01 0861045
O 261045Z MAR 08




E.O. 12958: N/A



1. (SBU) Summary: The KMT's Ma Ying-jeou won a
record-breaking 58.4 percent of the votes in Taiwan's
presidential election on March 22, beating the ruling DPP
candidate Frank Hsieh, who took 41.6 percent of the vote
(Reftel). Most observers here place the major responsibility
for the defeat on President Chen, whose family and some high
officials have been embroiled in corruption controversies
since 2005. Some experts caution against viewing the results
as a rejection of Taiwan independence or as an affirmation of
Ma's accommodating cross-strait policies. The outcome also
represents a genuine "victory" for Ma, who capitalized on
personal popularity and a strengthened KMT campaign
performance that focused on the economy. The DPP is expected
to enter into a struggle over leadership, party line and
future direction, while the KMT has an opportunity to offer
reconciliation and try to heal the social divisions resulting
from a hard fought campaign. Most are hopeful Ma's victory
will lead to cross-Strait progress, but note it is up to
Beijing to decide how to respond to Ma's moderate overtures.
End Summary.

2. (SBU) A broad range of prominent local and international
experts analyzed the results and implications of Taiwan's
March 22 presidential election at several post-election panel
discussions attended by AIT. The following summarizes some
of the more interesting views that experts expressed about
the reasons for Ma's decisive victory and the implications
for domestic politics, cross-Strait relations, and
U.S.-Taiwan relations.

A Referendum on President Chen...

3. (SBU) The KMT's Ma Ying-jeou scored a decisive victory
over DPP candidate Frank Hsieh in the Taiwan presidential
election on March 22, winning by a margin of 58.4 - 41.6
percent of the votes (Reftel). Observers here note that this
election is the latest in a string of defeats for the DPP
since 2005, when President Chen's family and some senior DPP
officials first became embroiled in corruption cases. They
place the major responsibility on Chen for the DPP defeats,
including Hsieh's electoral loss. In their view, the
balloting on March 22 was a clear repudiation of the
president by a public dissatisfied with the government's
management of the economy and promotion of
ideologically-charged partisan politics. However, many local
commentators, especially those with pro-Green views, caution
against viewing the election as a rejection of Taiwan
identity or independence, or as an affirmation of Ma's more
accommodating cross-Strait policies, noting this was more a
vote against the DPP than a vote for the KMT and its

4. (SBU) Hsieh, who faced an uphill battle, is generally
seen as doing as well as could be expected under very
unfavorable circumstances. Under Chen the DPP failed to
enlarge its base of support. In part because of the
corruption problems and KMT attempts to recall or force him
to resign, Chen moved away from the political mainstream to
embrace more extreme pro-independence initiatives. This
damaged the attractiveness of the party to many voters by
giving the impression that the administration was not taking
seriously their genuine economic and social-welfare concerns.
A normally unified party, moreover, was racked by fissures
resulting from a highly contentious primary campaign in the
spring of last year. Some also fault Hsieh for running an
overly negative campaign and point out he was not a very
proactive campaigner, making many fewer public appearances
than Chen did when he was the candidate.

...And a Vote of Confidence for Ma

5. (SBU) The election outcome also represents a genuine

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"victory" for Ma, who was able to capitalize on his personal
popularity and a strengthened campaign performance by the KMT
focused on the economy. Some experts say the KMT led by Ma
has changed in some key aspects from what it was eight years
ago. It has successfully moved away from core
pro-unification ideals to accommodate the preferences of the
mainstream Taiwan majority, effectively neutralizing the
DPP's efforts to play the Taiwan-identity card. Ma, with
widespread personal appeal as a clean and moderate
politician, is a much stronger candidate than Lien Chan was
in 2000 and 2004. After 15 years of division, the pan-Blue
camp learned that disunity helped only the DPP, and it fully
unified behind Ma. The KMT also ran a well-organized,
effective campaign that showed creativity and reduced the
advantage previously held by the DPP in this area.

Political Trends Underpinning the Results

6. (SBU) Ma won by an impressively large margin, which had
already been presaged in the results of local and legislative
elections since 2005. Those elections showed overall support
for the KMT had risen from approximately 50 percent to
perhaps slightly under 60 percent. Some argue the shift
began with Ma's election as KMT chairman in 2005 and
accelerated when corruption scandals involving Chen's family
and staffers that began to surface later that year. The
overall vote share for the DPP dropped from about 50 percent
in 2004 to around 40 percent in the 2005 local and 2008
legislative elections, a decline of 8-10 percent. Much of
that decline shifted to the KMT, but some was a result of
light Green voters sitting out elections.

7. (SBU) The independent voters that largely have swung in
support of the KMT over the past few election cycles are a
heterogeneous group, ranging from white-collar middle class
professionals who vote on issues to working class people who
lack strong party identification and are more susceptible to
mobilization. One scholar suggested many of these
independent voters live in central Taiwan, a key battleground
where the KMT made large gains. Compared to 2004 when Chen
narrowly won central Taiwan, Hsieh lost this area by an
overwhelming number of votes. Also notable was Ma's ability
to erode the DPP's vote share in southern Taiwan, winning the
larger cities of Kaohsiung, Tainan, and Chiayi and reducing
the DPP majority in the five largely agricultural counties of
Yunlin, Chiayi, Tainan, Kaohsiung, and Pingtung, which Hsieh
won by only a small margin.

Referenda Concerns

8. (SBU) The failure of the two UN referenda to meet the
participation threshold required for validation (50 percent
of all eligible voters) is seen by some as detrimental to
Taiwan's democratic development because it diminishes the
effectiveness of national referenda as one of the important
tools for determining public policy. The DPP's
politicization of referenda degrades their value. In
addition, some are concerned that the international community
may misinterpret the failure of the UN referenda.

Implications for Taiwan Democracy

9. (SBU) The free, fair and clean election showcased
Taiwan's vibrant democracy, experts agree. Some invoke
Harvard professor Sam Huntington to suggest that the second
transfer of power between political parties signifies Taiwan
is transitioning from a young to a "mature" democracy.
Independent voters played a pivotal, healthy role, and chose
to vote based on the issues and their everyday concerns,
rather than the more partisan ideological politics and agenda
setting by the political parties and media. Hsieh and the
DPP, furthermore, took the loss graciously, affirming the
results as the will of the people and a personal failure for
Hsieh but a success of the democratic process. Ma's wide
margin of victory and the KMT's earlier overwhelming victory

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in the January legislative elections give Ma a strong
mandate, but the public will now hold the KMT fully
accountable for the future performance of the government.

Implications for Domestic Politics

10. (SBU) After experiencing the latest in a string of
electoral defeats, the DPP will undergo a period of
introspection and, perhaps, reform, several experts believe.
While the breakup of the party remains only a remote
possibility, the coming months are likely to see a heated
debate over party line between moderates and independence
fundamentalists and also a power struggle as the party
prepares to hold an election in late May for party chairman.
In the short-term, some say, the deep Green could hold the
upper hand and the DPP may move to consolidate its base
before attempting to move back toward the center to prepare
for the next local elections slated for late 2009. Some
point out the DPP still represents 42 percent of the voters
and the party could return to power in four years if the KMT
runs into corruption problems or Ma's cross-Strait policies
do not win support from the Taiwanese majority.

11. (SBU) Ma has an opportunity to lead Taiwan toward
national reconciliation, putting in the past the highly
charged politics of the Chen era. Some say Ma could help
this process by reaching out to the DPP and independents,
offering positions in the next administration and pardoning
Chen if he is indicted and convicted after leaving office.
The public will expect Ma and his administration to be more
transparent in conducting business and deals with Beijing.
Perhaps Ma's greatest challenge will be managing and
balancing the competing interests of the party bureaucracy,
the KMT Legislative Yuan (LY) caucus, and the executive
branch. Key tests for Ma will be his ability to check
corruption and whether he follows through on pledges to
appoint some politically independent professionals to
positions in supervisory institutions such as the Control
Yuan, Examination Yuan, and the Council of Grand Justices.

Implications for Cross-Strait Relations

12. (SBU) Most local observers agree it is now up to
Beijing to decide how to respond to Ma's moderate
cross-Strait policies and statements. Challenges Ma may face
in dealing with China could include possible attempts by
Beijing to further limit Taiwan's international space,
conflicting signals from Beijing, reflecting differences
within the Chinese leadership over how to engage Taipei, and
Chinese reactions to Ma's criticisms of Beijing's poor human
rights record. The weakened position of the DPP could lead
Beijing to think it will have greater leverage over Ma.
Several experts suggest Ma cannot fulfill his cross-Strait
promises without serious concessions and flexibility from
Beijing. China needs to react positively to Ma's overtures
to show the Taiwan public that a more moderate approach can
bring benefits to Taiwan. Ma will also have to be careful to
reassure the Taiwanese that moves to improve relations with
Beijing will not "sell out" Taiwan to China. Several experts
suggest a unified front would strengthen Ma's bargaining
position and hope he will consider the DPP's views while also
balancing competing cross-Strait strategies from within his
own party. Others note that a stronger relationship with the
U.S. and other "unofficial" partners would also improve
Taiwan's position vis-a-vis Beijing.

13. (SBU) Experts suggest that if Beijing is unable to move
on cross-Strait relations with a Ma administration, then
future prospects for progress will be even dimmer. Regional
and international politics, however, could complicate the
process leading to a cross-Strait rapprochement. Some note
that U.S. arm sales to Taipei, the possibility of a
U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement, and the improvement of
U.S-Taiwan ties could make it more difficult for Beijing to
make concessions. Others argue that this would increase
Taiwan's leverage but not necessarily block progress, a view

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Ma and his closest advisers have favored.

Implications for U.S.-Taiwan Relations

14. (SBU) Ma's victory could usher in an era of greater
stability in northeast Asia, which would be welcomed by the
U.S., most observers agree. Ma could turn the triangular
Beijing-Taipei-Washington relationship from a "zero sum" into
a "positive sum" game. The key is restoring trust,
credibility, stability, and continuity to the U.S.-Taiwan
relationship, which some suggested could be advanced by a Ma
visit to Washington prior to inauguration. If packaged as a
move to enhance stability in the Taiwan Strait and a step to
lay groundwork for future cross-Strait dialogue, Beijing may
pull its punches in objecting to such travel by the
president-elect, the experts maintain.

© Scoop Media

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