Taiwan's opposition parties have proposed enacting constitutional reform through a referendum in early 2005 in bid to win support away from President Chen Shui-bian, who previously made similar promises. The campaign tactic risks causing divisions in the alliance and raising tensions in the Taiwan Strait — both of which will benefit Chen.
Taiwan's opposition Pan Blue Alliance parties — the Kuomintang (KMT) and the People First Party (PFP) — on Nov. 16 proposed completing constitutional reform through a referendum in early 2005. The proposal is a bid to win support away from President Chen Shui-bian, who promised to hold a similar referendum in December 2006 to allow popular participation in constitutional reform in 2008. The maneuver by the Blue parties — which are explicitly opposed to Taiwanese independence from China in the near term — could weaken the alliance and its political support. Furthermore, the opposition's backing of constitutional reform and a referendum could exacerbate tensions in the Taiwan Strait and prompt a response by Beijing in the run-up to the island's presidential elections in March 2004. Chen's re-election platform has been almost entirely based on the independence issue, and the incumbent now leads in the polls — after trailing for several months. Following his trip to the United States and Panama in early November, Chen and Vice President Annette Lu's popularity rose 7 percentage points over a week to 35 percent of voters surveyed by Taiwan's China Times from Nov. 2-5. Lien Chan, chairman of the leading opposition party, Kuomintang, and his running mate, People First Party Chairman James Soong, stand at 34 percent — down significantly from high ratings between 41 percent and 51 percent. Fearing that Chen would run away with the election because of his strong pro-independence stance, the Pan Blue Alliance is trying to steal some of the incumbent's thunder. However, the tactic risks alienating some of the opposition's political power base and undermining the alliance. Until the reversal in the polls, the opposition took the stance that Chen's leadership was dangerous for Taiwan's security and that a vote for the KMT and PFP ticket was a vote for the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Faced with a more than 15-point lead in the polls, the Blue parties have changed their message — signaling that a referendum on constitutional reform is not as dangerous as the opposition once said it was. This risks nudging undecided voters previously concerned about Chen's pro-independence stance into supporting the president as it becomes difficult to distinguish between the president and the opposition. Many Pan Blue lawmakers are intractable and object to passing a referendum bill when the issue is brought before the Taiwanese legislature. For example, Lee Chuan-chiao, the KMT caucus whip, recommended that the alliance block the referendum bill even if it meant losing the election. Such dissention within the opposition could cause a split between voters and the party leaders that ultimately favors Chen. The opposition parties' new support for the referendum and constitutional reform is also likely to cause more tension between Beijing and Taipei. Beijing is strongly opposed to any Taiwanese referendum out of fear it could prompt a popular vote for the island's official independence. The Chinese government has been maintaining a comparatively low profile after missile launches and bellicose rhetoric backfired in the 1996 and 2000 elections. However, the situation has changed dramatically over the past two weeks. Chen is no longer behind in the polls, and the Chinese government cannot bet on an opposition victory to solve its problems. In addition, in Beijing's view the Taiwanese politicians on both sides of the ballot are flirting with unacceptable policies. The new set of circumstance could force Chinese President Hu Jintao to send an unambiguous signal to Taiwan that the island is approaching Beijing's limits. Taiwanese businesses in China could begin feeling pressure or the Chinese could make some sort of low-key military demonstration, such as increased reconnaissance patrols around the island or war games that include amphibious landings. Beijing fears playing its hand like it has in previous elections, but failure to act could allow Taiwanese presidential candidates to let the situation spiral out of control. As to sending Taiwan a message, China is damned if does and damned if it doesn't. Beijing has won large amounts of political creditability in recent years, and an ugly incident over the Taiwanese election would be a large step backward — and almost assuredly would hand the elections to pro-independence candidate Chen. However, if Hu does nothing, he could face severe opposition from the Chinese military and hard-line leaders in Beijing.