A New Chapter in Taiwan
ON MARCH 22, the opposition Kuomingtang (KMT) scored a resounding victory over the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the Taiwan presidential elections. This historic event marks a key moment in Taiwan's transition from a young to a mature democracy, particularly once the reins of power are returned to the KMT, which has spent the last eight years in opposition. President-elect Ma Ying-jeou won with a 17 percent margin, signaling the voters' discontent with the past eight years of DPP rule in which Taiwan's economy lagged behind the region, the president was tarnished by corruption scandals and Taiwan's international relations suffered. To Beijing's delight, the two referenda proposing Taiwan join the UN also failed to pass, signaling a complete repudiation of President Chen Shui-bian and the DPP.
Ma Ying-jeou's presidency presents a historic opportunity for tangible improvement in cross-straits relations, as well as Taiwan-U.S. relations.
The Election Results
MA YING-JEOU'S victory represents a shift in the political landscape of Taiwan, signaling the rise of moderate and pragmatic policies and international relations. During his campaign, Ma pledged "three no's": no unification, no independence and no use of force. Focusing on the domestic economy and strengthening relations with China and major countries, Ma stood in opposition to Chen Shui-bian's ideological "identity politics" which created ethnic tensions, needlessly provoked China and strained relations with the United States and Japan. Ma's landslide victory established that the electorate is not worried that he will "sell out" Taiwan to China, and that the peaceful status quo is preferable to either unification with the PRC or "Taiwan independence."
Following the Presidential inauguration on May 20, Ma's honeymoon will be short, with voters fed up with eight years of economic stagnation and political infighting within the DPP. President-elect Ma has promised economic growth, new infrastructure projects and reduced unemployment. He will have to quickly demonstrate that he can get things done.
To do that, Ma will have to carefully manage his allies in the Legislative Yuan, where the KMT holds 81 of the 113 seats. There is some risk that the KMT will be seen by the public as exercising absolute control and not accountable to the electorate, harking back to the decades of one-party rule and marshal law following the KMT's defeat at the hands of the Communists in 1949. Taiwanese voters in 2011 will enthusiastically support the opposition if the KMT becomes a bully or is tarnished by corruption scandals. A KMT insider said that the most important qualification for obtaining a position in the new government is high ethical standards and a strong reputation for honesty. Ma Ying-jeou's reputation as a clean politician was an important asset in his run for office as the KMT seeks to shake its historical image as a corrupt and autocratic organization.
Likewise, the KMT's treatment of outgoing president Chen Shui-bian will be closely watched. President Chen faces criminal charges of embezzlement, while his wife and son-in-law have cases currently on appeal. The Taiwanese constitution does not protect a former president from prosecution, and some KMT lawmakers might be tempted to seek revenge on President Chen. Ma Ying-jeou can not forestall a trial as the president does not have the power to pardon until after a conviction has been made. A bitter trial will prevent reconciliation and any likelihood that the DPP will be a constructive loyal opposition in Ma's first term. Furthermore, perceptions of persecution of a former president could have a chilling effect on other countries that are transitioning to democracy. The new president will have to strike a balance between protecting Taiwan's rule of law with the KMT's and the island's image.
Ma's strategy to engage the mainland using the "one China, different interpretations" model provides a gateway for talks with China. At a post-election press conference, Ma said, "we are trying to adopt a middle of the road, mutual non-denial agreement; that is, we won't deny their existence but we cannot recognize them. . . ." This construct will enable Ma to follow up on domestic economic investments by building economic links with the mainland. Direct flights and cargo services are a high priority, as is reducing investment restrictions on Taiwanese companies, opening financial markets and increasing tourism.
Once economic issues are addressed, political détente is the next objective, and ultimately military confidence building measures and potentially even a peace treaty.
Implications for China
OUTCOME OF the election and failure of the referenda is the ideal outcome for Beijing and undoubtedly a relief for China's Taiwan-watchers. It is expected that Chinese officials will shift their strategy towards Taiwan from one of crisis management to a new "opportunity management." However, China's political ship of state is ponderous at best and will move very cautiously. An important question is whether China can capitalize on the new government in Taipei, particularly when faced with difficult internal political challenges throughout China. Furthermore, there are strong lobbies within China that will still seek to subjugate Taiwan and force a unification agenda or play up a "Taiwan independence" threat that may no longer be there. Likewise, there will be a temptation for Beijing to have high expectations that Ma will make concessions to the PRC and support moves that bolster China's claims of sovereignty. It would be a mistake to underestimate Ma's "Taiwaneseness" and clear motivations to protect Taiwan's current status quo.