Deconstructing Taiwan's Election

Sunday’s elections in Taiwan, which brought the Nationalists to power, will likely lead to better relations with the mainland. Still, that doesn’t mean cross-strait tensions are going away.

Some thirteen million Taiwanese voters went to the polls Sunday in what was arguably the most important vote since they were accorded the right to directly elect their president in 1996.

At one level, the results of the contest for the presidency of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan are quite unambiguous. Former-Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party (KMT) resoundingly trounced Frank Hsieh of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a former premier and two-term mayor of Taiwan's second- largest city, Kaohsiung, by nearly 17 percent, winning 7,658,724 votes (58.45 percent) against his rival's 5,445,239 (41.55 percent). Compared with the 2004 elections in which the DPP's margin of victory was only 0.22 percent, the mandate won by the winner this time was unmistakable, especially when one also considers that the January poll for the 113-member Legislative Yuan left the KMT with eighty-one seats to the DPP's twenty-seven (five other seats are held by allies of the KMT). In the presidential vote, the KMT not only won 80 percent of Taiwan's counties, but improved its performance by at least 7 percent in all but one of the country's counties. The sole exception was, Kinmen where the party could hardly have been expected to improve on its 95 percent level of support.

Ma, a fifty-eight-year-old American-trained lawyer with postgraduate law degrees from New York University and Harvard Law School, ran a successful campaign on a platform of economic growth, which appealed to an electorate which polls indicated wanted a return to the rapid expansion they had enjoyed through the late 1990s. His so-called 633 Plan pledged 6 percent economic growth, 3 percent unemployment and per- capita GDP of $30,000. The president-elect's hopes of delivering on these promises are predicated on the belief that a common cross-strait "One China" market with the People's Republic of China (PRC) would allow Taiwan to benefit from the mainland's economic rise. Thus the conventional wisdom is that Ma's win will improve relations between Taipei and Beijing, which had grown acrimonious during the presidency of Chen Shui-bian of the DPP. A surge in Taiwanese national identity repeatedly heightened tensions then.

However, such simplifications miss the significance of other, more subtle dynamics at work. Two referendums held in conjunction with the presidential poll failed to pass due to Taiwan's unusually stringent constitutional requirements for such initiatives-not only must the proposal garner a majority of the ballots cast, but the total number of ballots must also represent a majority of the eligible electors. But both the questions posed and the affirmative votes say a great deal about popular sentiment on the island. The first proposal, backed by the DPP, asked voters if an application for membership in the United Nations should be made under the name "Taiwan" rather than the hitherto-legal name of "Republic of China." The second proposal, supported by the KMT, called for seeking the same admission to the UN, albeit "under the name Republic of China, Taiwan, or other appropriate name." While both proposals failed to attract the requisite turnout, the former nonetheless received support from 94 percent of the 6.2 million voters who made a judgment, while the latter received 87 percent of the vote from 5.7 million people. Clearly the fact that nearly 10.5 million votes were cast in favor of Taiwan attempting to join the UN under some scenario, however unlikely, means that a separate national identity has taken root on the island and that the democratically expressed aspirations of its people for international recognition are likely to only gain momentum in the coming years.

While Ma has advocated a number of high-profile openings to the mainland, including inaugurating direct air links across the straits, allowing Taiwanese firms greater scope for investments in China and Chinese firms greater access to the island's markets, and recognizing academic credentials granted on the mainland, he has also recently gone considerably beyond his "Three No's" (no unification negotiations, no independence proclamation, no use of force). In acknowledgment perhaps of the Taiwanese electorate's growing sense of national identity and thus, its need for national security, Ma has moved recently to articulate a more robust strategic vision. In a February 26 speech to the Association for the Promotion of National Security, he outlined his "SMART Strategy": reliance on the "soft" cultural and economic power of Taiwan's democratic political and free-market achievement; military deterrence; assuring the status quo; and restoring trust with traditional allies.

The last plank comes from Ma's acknowledgement that while "the United States has long been the ROC's most important diplomatic and military ally," the "pursuit of de jure independence, name change, authorizing a new Constitution, and the ‘Joining the UN under the Name Taiwan' plebiscite, among other impractical, unhelpful policies" have tried America's patience. Instead, he promised: