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.
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.
For those concerned about the island’s room for maneuver, a second term for Ma deepens apprehension about where their society will find itself after four more years of collaboration and integration with China, Ma’s signature policy issue. The time has come for adjustments in strategy with a more balanced approach and a more honest acknowledgment of the risks.
Yet in his victory speech on the weekend, the re-elected president appeared to double down on his policies. “In the next four years, cross-strait relations will be even more harmonious, with more mutual trust and less chance of conflict,” Ma promised. “I will give Taiwan a sustainable, peaceful, and stable environment.”
Many observers question whether Ma can deliver such results, since Beijing holds the whip in this relationship. Neither has Beijing conceded any ground in the disputes over sovereignty and massive military deployments against the island. Like Ma’s detailed campaign promises for greater economic prosperity in 2008 that ran afoul of the global recession, these promises could run into even more serious obstacles.
Japanese commentators, among the most astute foreign observers of Taiwan, speculate that in Ma’s second term Beijing will pressure him to sign a peace treaty and urge political negotiations with the goal of eventual unification. These steps would be premature, to say the least, and would expose Ma’s lack of domestic support for moving to a new stage of relations with China that cannot be as easily dressed up to serve mutual interests. Ma denies plans for political talks or a visit to China during his second term. He has even backed away from talk about signing a peace agreement.
But if Ma and the KMT want to move beyond the merely functional commercial relations they have already set up toward more institutionalized ties in a rush of camaraderie with their former adversaries, they must do the hard political work at home to build stronger domestic agreement in an open and democratic spirit. On this, presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen from the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party was right during the campaign in calling for a “Taiwan consensus” as a pre-condition for deepening relations with China.
Especially in dispute in the presidential campaign was Ma’s virtual alliance with Beijing over the “1992 consensus,” which affirms that Taiwan is part of “one China” but allows both sides to define what that means. It remains a question in the minds of many Taiwanese whether this policy is merely an innocuous mantra, as some KMT officials have said privately, or a naive concession to Beijing that carries serious risks, as Ms. Tsai has often said.
It is also troubling that this consensus on “one China” lowers Taiwan’s international profile. This makes the island’s separate political and diplomatic status indistinguishable from the only China that the rest of the world recognizes, namely the People’s Republic of China.
This election cycle shows that the road ahead is fraught with many such challenges. Ironically, these flow directly from the “progress” in cross-strait relations that is often praised for its strategic benefits to the United States and East Asia generally. But the questions and doubts are real and continuing. They have not been put to rest by the election, but rather re-emphasized.
Without some adjustments in policy to address these concerns and reassure the Taiwanese public, Ma could leave a legacy of limited choices and unacceptable options to his successors.
Julian Baum is a journalist formerly based in both Taipei and Beijing.