Taiwan president-elect's bold mandate: improve ties with China, U.S.

Ma Ying-jeou, a former mayor of Taipei and Harvard Law School graduate, may face resistance to his conciliatory approach.

Vincent Yu/AP
The new face of Taiwan: Ma Ying-jeou wants to start direct flights from China, allowing more Chinese tourists to visit.

Voters in Taiwan handed opposition candidate Ma Ying-jeou a landslide victory in Saturday's presidential election, raising hopes of détente with China after eight years of pro-independence brinksmanship that strained ties with the US.

The result was a rebuke to President Chen Shui-bian, whose candidate, Frank Hsieh, lost by 2 million votes out of 13.2 million cast. Analysts said it signaled a prioritizing of economic interests over ethnic identity and the anti-China rhetoric of Mr. Chen's ailing party, which also lost heavily in January's legislative elections.

"Taiwan should be united without using ethnicity as an issue for political purposes... I will be symbol of national unity, not a source of social division," said Mr. Ma at a victory press conference, taking a swipe at the opposition Democratic Progressive Party's (DDP) campaign ads that highlighted his roots on the mainland, in contrast to Taiwanese-born opponents.

A Harvard Law School graduate, Ma rose through the ranks of the Kuomintang (KMT), the political party that lost China's civil war in 1949 to Mao Zedong's communists and retreated to Taiwan where it ruled by fiat for four decades. In the 1990s, Ma served as a corruption-busting justice minister, a role that alienated many powerbrokers within his own party. He then built his own base as mayor of Taipei until 2006, before pressing his claim to lead the KMT after party candidates lost two successive presidential elections.

Now that he has secured Taiwan's top post, Ma – a mild, somewhat cautious politician – will need to keep his own party in line as Taiwan's new president, as well as display diplomatic resolve to show he isn't going soft on Beijing, say analysts. His solid mandate should strengthen his hand over the KMT-dominated legislature, but some question how well-anchored his pragmatism and financial probity is on sensitive matters such as military defenses against China.

"He's not someone with strong convictions on key issues, so he can be pushed around.... He faces a lot of pressures. It will be difficult to balance the forces within his own party," says Lo Chih-Cheng, a politics professor at Soochow University in Taipei.

Ma's vision for Taiwan

Ma's supporters say that his conciliatory approach to Beijing isn't a sellout of Taiwanese sovereignty, as opponents have claimed, and won't prevent Ma from criticizing China's human-rights abuses such as the crackdown in Tibet. Speaking during a noisy victory celebration Saturday at his campaign headquarters, Ma told reporters that any future peace treaty between the two countries must remove Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan, currently estimated at 1,000. He also repeated a campaign pledge to maintain defense spending above 3 percent of Taiwanese gross domestic product.

Ma's promise to boost incomes by promoting closer trade and investment ties with China was partly echoed by Mr. Hsieh, suggesting consensus amid Taiwan's fractious politics. Analysts and colleagues warn that Ma's olive branch will quickly encounter friction, though, if his trade negotiators brush up against Beijing's implacable claim over Taiwan, an island that is sovereign in all but name.

One irritant in that relationship appeared to fade Saturday when most voters ignored two referendums asking if they supported Taiwan's bid to join the United Nations, which China and the US had criticized in advance. Only 35 percent of voters participated, in contrast to a 76 percent turnout on the presidential ballot. That rendered the referendums, which were overwhelmingly yes votes, invalid.

In his press conference, Ma said that he wanted Taiwan to be a "responsible stakeholder" in international circles and to restore "mutual trust" with the US, Taiwan's closest ally. He said he would seek to restore direct air links with China and bring more Chinese tourists to Taiwan as his first steps towards economic cooperation that may eventually yield a "common market" for goods and services.

Ma's popularity could rile China

But the road to détente with Beijing, a key plank of Ma's program, is still lined with speed bumps. One unexpected hurdle may emerge from Ma's own popularity, both in Taiwan and in Hong Kong and other parts of China, says Christopher McNally, a research fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii. As Ma begins to reach out to China, and his international profile rises, hard-liners in Beijing may think twice about giving a platform to a photogenic leader whose legitimacy is based on a free vote.

"It was easy to demonize Chen and portray Taiwan democracy as an aberration, something that wasn't natural and didn't function well," says Mr. McNally. By contrast, Ma may prompt more Chinese "to become aware of Taiwan as a working democracy with a well-spoken leader, and to ask why they can't elect a leader like that?"

Jason Hu, a longtime friend and colleague of Ma, says his presidency will mark a turning point for Taiwan. A KMT executive twice-elected mayor of Taichung, the country's third-largest city, Mr. Hu denies opposition claims that KMT control of both the legislature and presidency for the first time since 2000 will stifle Taiwan's young democracy. Instead, he says, Ma can heal the divisions while reviving civic pride.

"I really want [Ma] to be a president of all people. Not just for a party, or part of the people ... to be a president that respects the Constitution and the system," he says.

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