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Opinion

After free and fair Taiwan elections, democracy is still under China's siege

On Jan. 14, Taiwan re-elected President Ma in a resounding exercise of democracy. But without adjustments to his strategy toward a dominant China, Mr. Ma could leave a legacy of unacceptable options for his successors – and the Taiwanese people.

By Julian Baum / January 16, 2012

Taiwan's re-elected President Ma Ying-jeou gestures as he celebrates winning the 2012 presidential election with supporters in Taipei Jan. 15. Mr. Ma's re-election is a vote of support for his four-year economic rapprochement with China – and raises concerns about Taiwanese independence over the long haul.

REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

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Washington

The presidential and legislative elections held on Jan. 14 in Taiwan were a resounding exercise in democracy. More than 13 million voters went to the polls in a peaceful and orderly display of constitutional rights that validated years of sacrifice and struggle. 

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This was only the fifth time Taiwan’s voters have chosen a president by popular ballot, and by many measures the island’s democratic practices are maturing nicely. The decisive victory by President Ma Ying-jeou and his Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in a three-way race was mostly free and arguably fair, according to teams of foreign observers. Yet it is no mere figure of speech to say that the island-republic’s democracy – especially its highly competitive elections – continue to be under siege.

The Chinese "test" missiles that splashed into the seas near coastal cities to intimidate Taiwanese voters in 1996 set the tone for the years to come. And while the political theater of that first presidential poll has not been surpassed, the cold logic of a China-determined future bears down as intently as ever.

The question that this election raised for winners and losers alike is whether the present fast pace of economic integration with China is in Taiwan’s best interests. For reasons largely having to do with domestic concerns, the voters said they are not ready to change ruling parties. But they remain attentive to the view that the government needs to reconsider the pace and scope of its opening to China. Mr. Ma received 51.6 percent of the votes, but that leaves nearly half of the electorate preferring another leader and another way forward.

Meanwhile, China’s mobile missile launchers continue to move about the coastal hills and valleys of the Chinese mainland just across the Taiwan Strait, in case anyone doubts Beijing’s intentions to annex the island. In this election cycle, there were newer methods of persuasion that intruded and are not easily defended against.

These included the spectacle of Taiwan’s most prominent business leaders publicly endorsing the government’s cooperation with China, in what appeared to be an orchestrated display of corporate “patriotism” not seen since the days of martial law. There were also the usual smear tactics and bold instances of misusing the criminal justice system to intimidate the opposition.

Foreign election observers noted many of these developments and offered some stern warnings. Among them was a cautionary statement about China’s influence from the International Committee for Fair Elections in Taiwan, a team of scholars, parliamentarians, and former government officials from North America, Europe, and Japan that was organized but not controlled by members of the opposition. “Cross-strait relations in the context of an economically and politically rising China weighs heavily on the election process in Taiwan,” the committee said in a preliminary report. “It puts tremendous pressures on Taiwan’s democracy and the freedom and fairness of the choices that its voters must make.”

With such disruptive forces nibbling at the edges of a broadly fair poll, it should not be surprising there is uncertainty about what lies some distance ahead. The pace of cross-strait relations since 2008 has been breathtaking, yet economic prosperity derived from these closer relations with China is far from assured, nor is it necessarily stabilizing for Taiwan’s economy and society.

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