On Sunday, Taiwan will elect its next president, the successor to President Ma Ying-jeou from the Kuomintang (KMT) party who has been in power for the past eight years and is ineligible to run for another term. The vote will almost certainly record a decisive choice for political change.
In the run up to the election, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, appears to be heading towards a runaway victory — with polls suggesting that she has about 45 per cent voter support. This puts her far ahead of the ruling KMT party candidate, Eric Chu, with around 20 per cent, and the smaller People First Party (PFP) candidate James Soong with 10 per cent. Around 25 per cent of voters remain undecided. With three-quarters of a million more voters this election than last time, the many young, first-time voters are likely to vote for non-mainstream parties or the DPP.
A series of political stumbles — with the governing KMT forced to change presidential candidate midway through the election — and a steady trend towards independent-mindedness, especially among the younger generation in Taiwan, has left the KMT government struggling to mobilise its support base. The polls suggest that the KMT might also lose control of the Legislative Assembly for the first time in Taiwan’s history.
The coming election result will be widely, if wrongly, read as a referendum on cross-Strait relations. President Ma has focused on improving relations with China and negotiated a succession of agreements with the mainland that have seen relations between Beijing and Taipei at their most cordial since the end of the Chinese civil war. The opening of cross-Strait economic relations was given a major fillip in 2008 after the election of Ma and the return of a KMT majority in the Taiwanese legislature. There followed a series of high-level exchanges between then Chinese and Taiwanese leaders that laid the foundations for steps that saw a major breakthrough in the relationship with the eventual signing of Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) on 29 June 2010.
But implementing follow-on arrangements to give effect to the agreement wasn’t all smooth sailing. The passage of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement through the Taiwanese legislature was disrupted by the emergence of the Sunflower Student Protest Movement in 2014. The movement gave vent to concerns about incomplete disclosure regarding the nature and potential costs of the agreement, as it related to telecommunications and other issues. And the backing it gained, from the opposition DPP and among students and young people, exposed the underbelly of anxiety about the deepening economic relationship with Beijing and its political implications. Taiwanese are glad to see tensions with Beijing reduced. But many also fear the Ma administration and the KMT might have made Taiwan too economically dependent on the mainland; that might lead to loss of independence and inability to fend off pressure one day to reunify with China on unfavourable terms.
In fact, the profound political shift in Taiwan is more closely associated with the economy’s failing struggle to re-invent itself. With per capita income around US$22,000, Taiwan is above the middle income threshold, but it has been unable to emulate its neighbours like South Korea and Japan in Asia in climbing up the income scale. Its export-dependent manufacturing sector faces competition from South Korea from above and emerging economies, like China, from below. GDP grew a measly 1 per cent in 2014; wages are stagnating and unemployment, at 4 per cent, is considered high. The irony is that Taiwan’s tortured, ‘one-sided’ economic relationship with China — which Ma had been trying to correct — might well be a core element in Taiwan’s economic woes. While direct trade has opened up across the Strait, Taiwan has continued to restrict Chinese imports and investment, essential to enjoying the fruits of fuller integration into the regional and global economy. South Korea has imposed no similar burdens on its international competitiveness.
This week’s lead essay from Mark Harrison points out that while the KMT government may have overstayed its welcome domestically, Taiwanese affairs have looked very different internationally. While the Ma–Xi meeting last November seemed merely to confirm the voters’ view that the KMT had lost sight of Taiwan’s democratic ideals and their everyday concerns, internationally it looked like an historic moment in cross-Strait relations and a step towards resolving one of modern history’s longest-standing ideological conflicts. Indeed, one conception of China’s diplomatic intention in agreeing to the meeting was that it was designed to lay down new benchmarks in cross-Strait relations in preparation for working with a DPP leadership.
‘Should Tsai be elected president, managing these two very different perspectives will be a key task for the incoming administration’, says Harrison. ‘As president, she will need to take heed of the international view of Taiwan and communicate the reasons why the electorate have voted for a more circumspect relationship with Beijing. Tsai’s task will be complicated by memories of the last DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, which still rankle foreign ministries around the world. At the same time, the United States and Japan have both become far warier of China’s assertive regional policies and a Taiwanese government that is less accommodating towards Beijing may suit their policy responses and leadership inclinations’.
It’s true, as Harrison says, that from an international perspective, policymaking in Taipei by a government that will base its legitimacy on its openness to public debate and political activism may appear less reassuring than the policies of accommodation with Beijing under Ma. Certainly Washington was anxious to be reassured that Tsai was not going to disturb the status quo on that front. But this is the tide of Taiwan’s modern political history. Beijing has shown respect for the process and provided a bridge to Tsai and an incentive to meet in the middle. And the policy outcomes that open government can deliver on China and other issues will ultimately stand on stronger foundations of political legitimacy.
Professor Peter Drysdale is Editor ANU East Asia Forum. This article was first published in the East Asia Forum on 11 January 2016.