By: Hugo Polanco
Taiwan will have elections for President and for their legislature January 14th. These elections will be the fifth such since the Island ended martial law in 1987. Taiwanese elections have rarely gone smoothly in the past. Either internal growing pains or external influences have marred previous elections. For example the first election for President, in 1996, was interrupted by mainland China firing missiles outside of Taiwan’s main ports. The 2000 election was mired with a scandal within the Nationalists party (KMT) that led their vote to be split among two contenders, subsequently the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected into power for the first time. Finally the 2004 election featured an assassination attempt on the incumbent Chen Shui-bian, who was later indicted on corruption charges. This pattern of turbulent elections indicates just how young and fragile Taiwanese democracy really is. This coming election, while hopefully avoiding many of the more dramatic aspects of previous elections, has the potential to destabilize both Taiwan and East Asia as a whole.
At stake is the nature of Taiwan’s relationship with China. Ma Ying-jeou’s electoral victory in 2008 brought rapprochement with China after 59 years of tense relations. In quick succession his administration managed to open and reconnect Taiwan with China via direct air and shipping links, Mainland tourist access, and many other cultural exchanges. Also his administration managed to successfully negotiate and implement the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement(ECFA), which is a trade agreement designed to lower tariffs and other trade barriers between the two sides. While both the presence of Mainland tourists and ECFA has been beneficial to Taiwan’s economy, many Taiwanese worry that the price is too high. Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP nominee, is running against President Ma Ying-jeou on a platform that rapprochement with China is occurring too rapidly and is threatening Taiwan’s sovereignty. Since Taiwan is a disputed territory with de facto independence, despite being claimed as a province of China, binding Taiwan’s economy too closely China’s could leave it vulnerable to China’s attempts to reincorporate the territory. This concern was so great that the passage of the act was mired with violence in the legislature.
As of now the election is wide open, with both candidates holding equal shares of voter approval and James Soong a third party candidate running a distant third place. A DPP victory could return Cross Strait relations to the tenuous pre Ma Ying-jeou era. A return to that era may prove to be untenable for Taiwan. Like the rest of the East Asian countries, Taiwan’s future economic growth lies in business relations with China. The current political relationship between both sides is a flimsy façade, a façade that however must be maintained. This façade allows China to preserve its myth of national unity while allowing the Taiwanese to exercise de facto independence. It must be a bitter and humiliating pill for the Taiwanese to swallow, to be denied all the formal trappings of prosperous and independent state. Taiwan has long paid this price and despite the desire to reevaluate the speed and depth of Cross Strait relations, the DPP would probably not move toward altering the status quo. The Chinese must be prepared for the possibility of a DPP victory and act responsibly. An overly negative or heavy handed response will only confirm the fears of many Taiwanese that China seeks to aggressively reincorporate them. Such a situation would hamper China’s goals of deeper connections with Taiwan and simultaneously severely limit Taiwan’s future growth. While on China’s insistence the relationship cannot be at a state to state level, a more stable relationship must be established that does not rely on the preference of the Chinese for certain political parties.