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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 17

Taiwan’s Presidential Election and the Future of Cross-Strait Relations

Monday 14 April 2008, by Janardan Sahu


The fourth presidential election for the post of President of the Republic of China on Taiwan was held on March 22, 2008. Ma Ying-jeou and his running mate, Vincent Siew of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidates scored a landslide victory by almost a 17 per cent margin for the post of President and Vice-President, defeating Frank Hsieh and Su Tseng-chang, the candidates of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The KMT candidates got nearly 60 per cent of the votes. Ma is the first mainlander to become the President of the ROC through direct election. The direct election to the office of the President was held in 1996 for the first time, and Lee Teng-hui of the KMT, a native Taiwanese, got himself elected as the first directly elected President of Taiwan.

This is the second time that the transfer of power took place. In the year 2000, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP became the President, defeating the KMT candidate, ending 50 years of KMT rule and got himself elected again in the 2004 presidential election. With Ma’s election on March 22, the KMT has returned to power.

Ma Ying-jeou will formally take over on May 20, when Chen Shui-bian steps down on completing his second term in office.

The two “referenda” on joining the UN, which were held along with presidential election—the DPP’s under the name of “Taiwan”, and the KMT’s on returning to the UN under the official title “Republic of China”, or any other “practical titles” that upholds the nation’s dignity in response (even though the KMT urged voters to boycott both) failed to garner required percentage of votes (that is, 50 per cent turnout and 50 per cent valid votes polled for a referendum to be valid). Hence, both were declared invalid.

The election was held at a time when the incumbent President Chen Shui-bian was facing an anti-incumbency wave after remaining in power for eight years. His popularity had also declined due to corruption charges levelled against him and his family members and the downturn of the Taiwanese economy for some years.

The DPP’s defeat was clear to all in the January 2008 legislative Yuan elections, in which the KMT got a landslide victory by defeating the ruling DPP and winning 81 of the 113 seats in the legislature, securing a two-thirds majority. The DPP just got 27 seats. Most of the opinion polls had also predicted KMT victory in the presidential election though the extent of loss of the DPP surprised many. The reasons are to be found in any democracy: when a party remains in power for a long time, it fails to fulfil the expectations of the public, and the disenchanted public vote against that party at the hustings; this happened with the DPP as well.

Secondly, the people were dissatisfied with the lacklustre performance of the economy, an average of four-to-five per cent GDP growth over the past three years, a four per cent unemployment rate and a rising inflation. And, finally the provocative, confrontational rhetoric on Cross-Strait relations of the DPP further destabilised Sino-Taiwan relations and aggravated the economic woes as both the economies have developed close cooperation over the years. So, unlike previous elections, this time the main focus was how to revive the economy and check the governmental corruption rather than striving for a separate Taiwanese identity and political status for Taiwan.

Interestingly, the profile of both the candidates appear strikingly similar. Both Ma and Hsieh have got law degrees, are Mayors, Ma was a Mayor of Taipei for eight years and Hsieh was a Mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city, for seven years. Both are Chairmen of their respective parties. Similarly, on a number of issues their positions are far closer than apart from each other. Both of them were talking of improvement of the economy and increased trade and economic relations with the Mainland as the Taiwanese have already invested $ 100 billion in the Mainland. Both of them wanted to maintain defence spending at three per cent of the GDP and strongly opposed the PRC’s efforts to squeeze Taiwan’s attempt at expanding the international space, and trying to restore trust with the US.

Similarly, though Ma deplored and opposed the DPP’s drive towards de jure independence and talks of signing a peace accord with the Mainland, Hsieh also seeks a less confrontational approach towards the Mainland than that of Chen Shui-bian.

Therefore, what separates them mainly is not the issues but the priorities, as for Ma the issue of the island’s economy is of top priority and security and political issues are secondary, whereas for Hsieh, Taiwanese identity and the island’s political status is the main concern.

Future State of the Cross-Strait Relations

THE results of the legislative Yuan and the presidential election are going to influence the future course of Cross-Strait relations. China has expressed a sense of relief with the election results. As the KMT is opposed to de jure independence of the island, Ma being a liberal would not do anything that may irk Beijing. Hopefully, the Cross-Strait relations might see better days ahead.

Ma has also been talking of a number of initiatives to generate enough positive momentum to improve Cross-Strait relations, like a common economic market on the EU pattern, establishment of direct air, ship and communication links with the Mainland for which Beijing has been arguing for a long time, resuming of Cross-Strait negotiations under the “1992 consensus”, revival of Strait Exchange Foundation (SEF) and National Unification Council, a mechanism to discuss how to improve relations and confidence-building measures ultimately leading to a peace agreement with Beijing. Immediately after his victory Ma also publicly welcomed the arrival of two Pandas which Beijing officially offered as a gift during former KMT Chairman Lien Chan’s first trip to Beijing in May 2005.

However, Cross-Strait relations might not move as smoothly as expected by many, if one takes note of some of the reactions, statements and activities of President-elect Ma Ying-jeou.

Ma’s denunciation of the recent Chinese crackdown on Tibet and threatening to boycott the Beijing Olympics if the situation deteriorates there, his strong reaction to the Chinese Premier’s statement on Taiwan’s future, and his pronouncement during the election campaign that Taiwan’s policy towards the Mainland would be “no unification, no independence and no use of force”, his love for democracy and his criticism of Beijing’s human rights violations and repressive measures against the Falun Gong, his regular presence on the commemoration ceremony organised in memory of the Tian anmen victims of 1989 and so on create apprehensions in the minds of many including the Chinese.

So it would be very difficult to predict clearly as to how Cross-Strait relations would move once Ma takes office in May 2008.

But one thing has been very clear that with economic development and initiation of political reforms, holding of peaceful elections, democracy has taken deep roots and been consolidated in Taiwan and a new Taiwanese identity has emerged among the people in Taiwan. This can be seen from the public opinion polls conducted from time to time. And the recent referenda, which were declared invalid, have got a sizeable number of votes, that is, more than 35 per cent of the votes polled.

Thus, it can be argued that the people of Taiwan are neither in favour of outright merger nor for tensions in Cross-Strait relations. They want to live separately enjoying the prosperity and freedom peacefully available to them in Taiwan.

So, how would the KMT, which opposes formal independence, address the Taiwan people’s desire following the mandate? This would interesting to watch in the coming days.

China also would like to wait and watch the words and deeds of the President-designate Ma Ying-jeou before taking any concrete steps towards the island.

America has also welcomed the election results as it has been a facilitator and an admirer of Taiwan’s economic success and democratisation process and in favour of the status quo in Cross-Strait relations over the years.

History of the Dispute and Sequence of Developments

TAIWAN is an island. It is situated about 120 miles off the coast of China’s south-eastern province Fujian in the East China Sea. The government, in addition to ruling the island, also exercises sovereignty over three other islands, Penghu, located forty miles off the Taiwan coast in the Taiwan Strait, Matsu and Jinmen(Quemoy), both are very close to the Mainland province Fujian. The population of Taiwan is about 23 million. Its economy has been very prosperous, rich, and developed. The political system has also been evolved from a single-party totalitarian/authoritarian rule under martial law to a vibrant democracy. The President of the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROCOT)—popularly known as Taiwan—is directly elected by its people.

The question of Cross-Strait relations/dispute starts with the defeat of Jiang Kai-shek at the hands of Communists in the civil war that followed immediately after the end of the Second World War in China. Jiang Kai- shek fled to Taiwan with his supporters and established his own government there and declared the Republic of China on Taiwan, whereas China established the People’s Republic of China on the Mainland and regarded Taiwan as a breakaway province of China and threatened to reunify it by force if it declared independence.

For the first three decades, the two governments each claimed sovereignty over all of China and Taiwan and each attempted or threatened to use force to resolve the sovereignty issue.

Beijing’s Taiwan policy underwent a change towards the late seventies. Although the return of Taiwan to the Mainland and the unification issue remained one of the main priorities of the Chinese leadership, the means and mechanisms changed. Instead of “liberation model”, the post-Mao leadership of China talked of “peaceful reunification” and “the one country, two systems” model. Thus, the “one-China principle” has been the first principle in Beijing’s Taiwan policy. To put it plainly, separation of Taiwan from the Mainland will not be tolerated. But instead of liberation, peaceful negotiations as the first choice for reunification and the promotion of economic and cultural exchanges as the prelude to political reunification are to be pursued, as the Chinese leadership claims.

Taiwan’s Mainland policy also underwent a change in the eighties.

Having lost the UN seat, with the shift of the US policy towards the Mainland, Chiang Ching-kuo, the then President, decided to initiate some steps towards democratisation of the political system along with economic modernisation, which had far- reaching consequences on Cross-Strait relations. In 1985, he for the first time picked up a native Taiwanese, Lee Teng-hui, as his Vice-President. The following year he allowed the Opposition to form political parties; as a result the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was formed. Now there are six large political parties in Taiwan. They are: the Nationalist Party (KMT), Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), People First Party (PFP), Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), The New Party (NP), Non-Partisan Solidarity Union (NPSU). These political parties have formed two broad coalitions, that is, the Pan-Blue Coalition (comprising KMT, PFP, NP) and Pan-Green coalition (comprising of DPP and TSU).

The Pan-Blue faction stands for pro-unification and pro-China policies, whereas the Pan-Green faction stands for pro-independence and pro-Taiwan policies.

In 1987 Chiang also lifted the martial law, which had been in effect on Taiwan since 1947, and partially lifted the “three no-s” policy of “no contact, no negotiations and no conpromise”, by allowing the Taiwanese to pay formal family visits to the Mainland.

Since then cultural contacts and economic relations have been expanded and deepened between the two sides. With his death in 1988, Lee Teng-hui who became the President of the ROC, gradually initiated a number of measures in order to take forward the democratisation process started by Chiang. In fact, the political system of Taiwan was a authoritarian one based on a Constitution adopted by the Nationalist Party (KMT) in 1947. The Constitution stipulates a National Assembly and a legislature composed of representatives from all the provinces of the Mainland. In order to have separate constitutional rule and establish democracy in Taiwan a number of constitutional revisions were made in the nineties, to change the provisions of the 1947 ROC Constitution. These provisions brought out a number of significant changes that allow for the direct election of Taiwan’s President and Vice-President, regular elections for all seats in the legislature, local elections in local bodies and so on. With the latest constitutional revision taking effect, the National Assembly ceased to exist. The body’s power to rectify constitutional amendments and territorial change now vests with the people who vote on such matters via referenda.

Dr Janardan Sahu teaches in the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.

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