The Plebiscite may not tie up the Election, but it will surely tie up Frank Hsieh
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
January 5, 2008
Not surprisingly, despite all the controversy, the Central Election Commission (CEC) eventually package-dealed the "Join the UN" and "Rejoin the UN" plebiscites with the March 22 presidential election. This tells us that the results of the recent legislative elections did not change the DPP's agenda for the March presidential election. The package-dealing of the plebiscite is one of the most important factors in the presidential election. This may be the last time we ever see a combined plebiscite/election.
During previous consultations between ruling and opposition leaders, the Blue camp attempted to resolve the issue of the two referenda through the legislative process. But ultimately the Green Camp will find it impossible to abandon its "Join the UN" plebiscite. Chen Shui-bian went so far as to intentionally reveal that if the Blue camp took advantage of its new supermajority to eliminate the "Join the UN" and "Rejoin the UN" plebiscites, he might propose a defensive plebiscite instead. Even if the Blue camp legislative caucus responds to the proposed plebiscite, it will not willingly provide Chen Shui-bian with an opportunity to manipulate the issue before his term of office expires. This means everything is back where it started.
Because everything is back where it started, this makes the situation even more intriguing. For both the Blue and Green camps, the combined plebiscite and general election to be held this March has become a case of "riding the tiger." This is particularly true for the Green Camp, specifically for Frank Hsieh. The "Join the UN" plebiscite touches on the fundamental articles of faith for the Democratic Progressive Party. It also constitutes one of the key distinctions between the Pan Green camp and the Pan Blue camp. On this Hsieh has no room for evasion. But does he really want this to be the main theme of the presidential election? Hsieh has a predicament. If he pushes the "Join the UN" issue too hard, it will trigger an intense backlash from Washington and Beijing. Previous high-level US criticisms of the plebsicite were mainly directed at Chen Shui-bian. Hsieh is not going to be happy if future attacks are directed at him. Manipulation of the "Join the UN" plebiscite issue will increase cross-strait tensions. This would be self-defeating for cross-strait policy initiatives currently being promoted by the Hsieh/Su campaign.
Frank Hsieh may not be eager to state his second reason. Once the plebiscite issue becomes the main theme of the presidential election, Hsieh may be compelled to take the Chen Shui-bian path. He may even be compelled to allow Chen Shui-bian back into the campaign. He may find himself and Chen Shui-bian joined at the hip again. To Chen Shui-bian, the plebiscite issue is not about helping Frank Hsieh get elected. It is about leaving a legacy for himself within the Green Camp. This is the only issue that A Bian can manipulate before his term of office expires. To expect him not to use it is impossible. Neither Frank Hsieh nor the Blue camp want Chen Shui-bian to propose a defensive referendum. That would hand the initiative back to Chen Shui-bian. Not only would issues Hsieh is currently promoting be shoved aside, he would again end up as Chen's hostage. If the situation truly degenerates to that level, Hsieh may as well throw in the towel.
One issue the Green Camp needs to reflect upon is the outcome of the plebiscite. Suppose the result is as disastrous as the combined plebiscite and legislative elections? Suppose even the threshold isn't reached? How will it be interpreted? Based on the results of the legislative elections, even if the Blue camp fails to organize a boycott of the plebiscite, a significant proportion of Pan Blue voters will boycott the plebiscite on their own. Even assuming those who obtain plebiscite ballots exceed the 26% who did so during the legislative elections, the percentage is unlikely to reach the threshold. What will the Green Camp do in the face of such a setback? Will they do the same thing they did following their defeat in the legislative elections? Will they blame the plebiscite balloting system for unfairness?
To the Blue camp, the "Rejoin the UN" plebiscite was from beginning to end, a phony issue. The KMT promoted it in order to avoid being labeled as "anti-Taiwan." Events motivated the Blue camp to boycott all the plebiscites. Blue camp voters will resist manipulation by the plebiscite issue on their own accord. The Blue camp really has no need to dance to the Green camp's tune. Ma Ying-jeou will most likely downplay the plebiscite, hoping that it and related issues will marginalize themselves. After all, to the Blue camp, whether the "Rejoin the UN" plebisicite passes is a matter of indifference. With its numerical advantage in the new legislature, it can propose remedies any time it needs to.
Combining plebiscites with general elections has been Chen Shui-bian's main political strategy. He created the model. It is his only opportunity to intervene in the upcoming election. The plebiscite has been nothing more than an election tool. Its purpose has been to win general elections. The DPP has twice combined plebiscites with general elections. The cost has been a gradual debasement of the sanctity of plebiscites. In 2004 a plebiscite helped Chen "win" the presidential election. But at the same time, Chen lost his euphemistically named "Defensive Plebiscite," which was in fact a "Missile Purchase" plebiscite. In January of this year, the DPP lost the legislative elections. It also lost the "Recover the KMT's Party Assets" plebiscite. Will next month's "Join the UN" plebiscite really help Hsieh win the presidential election? Nobody knows. The answer to this question will test Frank Hsieh's political wisdom.