The year’s election watching has begun with a distinct lack of surprise, as Taiwanese voters on Saturday awarded the expected landslide victory to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Its candidate Tsai Ing-wen will be the new president, and her party will have a clear majority in the legislature.
Tsai won with 56.1% of the vote, 25% (or more than three million votes) clear of her main rival, Eric Chu, from the incumbent Kuomintang (KMT). The DPP also picked up 44.1% of the vote in the legislative election, winning 68 of the 113 seats (up 28) to the KMT’s 35. (Official results here.)
The DPP is a member of Liberal International, while the KMT is in the centre-right International Democrat Union. But the key difference between them is not ideological but policy-based: to what extent should Taiwan play along with the Chinese government’s claim that Taiwan is a part of China?
The KMT, in power for the last eight years, has pursued a policy of closer ties with China, which has been strikingly successful. Trade between the two countries has boomed, direct flights have brought increased social and business contacts, and relations between the leaderships have been almost cordial, culminating in a meeting between presidents Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping in Singapore last November.
The DPP, which at least in principle is committed to a formal declaration of Taiwanese independence, has attacked Ma’s strategy as compromising Taiwanese sovereignty. But it’s hard to point to anything Ma has actually given up. As the election demonstrated, Taiwan remains a vibrant democracy, in complete contrast to the opaque autocracy of the mainland. If closer relations are paving the way for a Communist takeover, it’s very hard to see how.
Moreover, it’s also impossible to tell how much of the election result is due to dissatisfaction with KMT policies and how much is just the normal desire for change when a government has been there a long time and had its fair share of scandals.
Either way, Tsai’s priority will be to take a more assertive stance without bringing on a confrontation with Beijing. The closer economic relationship clearly benefits both sides, and although Xi and his colleagues may not know much about democracy, they probably realise that they need to be able to deal with both of Taiwan’s major parties. The semantics of the relationship can be glossed over, yet again.
Of course it’s not just China and Taiwan that need to deal with the messy question of Taiwan’s status. It’s also an issue for the rest of the world, most of which – including Australia – officially pretends that Taiwan does not exist while managing to somehow conduct trade and other relations with it. It’s an unsatisfactory situation, but as long as Taiwan itself is uncertain about how far to assert its independence, other countries will also have to perform a balancing act.
When I was young, there was quite a list of countries that were clearly independent but not members of the United Nations: East and West Germany, North and South Korea, Andorra, Qatar, Bhutan, Switzerland, and so on. Now Taiwan is the only one left. Its independence is real and (despite Beijing’s occasional blustering) not seriously threatened. But it still dares not speak its name.