Looking back at Taiwan’s election

By Denny Roy

Ma Ying-jeouThe milestones continue:

Taiwan’s democratization reached one milestone in 2000 with the passage of control of the executive branch from the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party, KMT) to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). With the return of the KMT to power following the recent elections, which I observed first-hand, yet another and equally important turning point has occured.

The KMT was the party of Chiang Kai-shek and had ruled Taiwan during the entire postwar period. The DPP, organized only in 1987 because of KMT restrictions on opposition parties, represented the “Taiwan first” viewpoint of the island’s majority population, ethnic Chinese communities of long-standing residency (as opposed to the “Mainlanders” who came to Taiwan after 1945). With democratization, however, came increased tensions with China, because the “Taiwan first” outlook does not conform to Beijing’s vision of Taiwan as a province of the PRC.

The troubled eight-year presidency of the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian has drawn to a close.

With the victory by KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan has reached another milestone: the return to power of the ousted KMT, now much transformed from Chiang Kai-shek’s days. For foreigners, what is most significant about this development is the prospect of a relaxation of cross-Strait tensions. Chen mightily antagonized Beijing. He specified that one of his objectives was to clarify the differences between Taiwan and China; Chinese officials called him a separatist and a traitor to the Chinese nation. Ma, however, accepts the principle that Taiwan is part of “one China,” with the possibility of eventual unification with the mainland. This may be all that Beijing needs to hear for the resumption of semi-official cross-Strait talks and a focus by both sides on economics rather than military contingencies.

Denny Roy is an East-West Center Senior Research Fellow whose work has focused mostly on Asia Pacific security issues, particularly those involving China. He is the author of Taiwan: A Political History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003).

For more discussion of the upcoming election, read Roy’s EWC Asia Pacific Bulletin issue “Taiwan’s 2008 Legislative Elections: DPP’s Pain is U.S. and PRC’s Gainand the November 15, 2007 EWC in Washington’s event report, “Prospects for Taiwan-PRC Peace Under New Leaders.”

2 thoughts on “Looking back at Taiwan’s election

  1. Although typically branded a ”troublemaker” — ie, one who has antagonized Beijing and Washington — Chen also leaves behind the much quieter legacy of pushing the KMT to transform (as you mention) and allowing for a degree of cross-strait economic integration that has been unprecedented, even under KMT administrations preceding his.

    While declining to dismantle (indeed, he even threw up some of his own) some of the roadblocks that have hindered cross-strait trade, Chen has presided over a massive (the largest in history) trade and investment flow across the strait, while hammering out many of the prickly details of further links for which credit will ultimately go to the KMT.

    A few days ago, I sat down with a top KMT official slated for a Cabinet position under Ma. Off-the- record, the official admitted that the foundations for opening up Taiwan to Chinese tourists, and for direct air and shipping links had already been laid through years of painstaking negotiations with Beijing, initiated and conducted by the DPP-led government. I doubt that much credit will go to the DPP for this, however. Equally sad is the lost legacy of how the DPP played a role in forcing the KMT to democratize from without; indeed, the opposition party (soon to become the ruling one) was, by and large, dragged kicking and screaming into democracy; now it is also beginning to embrace the localization movement that defines the DPP: Oddly enough, ”Taiwan First” was a slogan that the KMT clung to during Ma’s presidential campaign.

    Yes, cross-strait ties appear to be in an upswing as Ma chooses rhetoric and stances that are more palatable to Beijing. However, it bears reminding that behind the prospect of that relaxation of cross-strait relations and resumption of more official talks is the critical and intricate groundwork laid by the DPP. In the case of tourism, for example, virtually all that’s left is for Ma and Hu to sign on the dotted line. When Ma does sign, he will do so from the position of a party and government that is increasingly Taiwan-centric and democratic for reasons that have much to do with the DPP.

    A troubled 8-year presidency? Indeed. And certainly, sometimes needlessly rocky relations with the US and China contributed to Chen’s troubled tenure. However, to boil down his legacies and those of the DPP to antagonization is an unsophisticated perspective in summing up this changing-of-the-guard milestone in Taiwan’s history.

  2. I believe it was Shelley Rigger who commented that the real diplomatic skill of the KMT lies in its ability to co-opt and make their own policies from opposition parties that are popular with the public. One example of this is the “Taiwan First” rhetoric mentioned by Max in the previous post. If this is, indeed, a talent of the KMT, Taiwan can look forward to all of the best attributes of the DPP—including stronger cross-strait economic ties—without the anti-Chinese sentiments stirred up by Chen.

    However, the KMT must be careful. If pro-business KMT supporters and heavyweights get too carried away with liberalized economic policies toward China—such as unregulated off-shoring of labor, for example—Taiwan could face a serious unemployment problem in the future. Widespread unemployment in Taiwan would trigger a momentous backlash against mainland China, undoing all the diplomatic work in progress.

    As for Chen, it looks like his superficial appeals to minorities, young people, and the disenfranchised were not enough to carry the DPP to victory. As many observers of the general election four years ago would agree, his day in the sun should have ended after that election; the only thing that saved him was the miraculous “shooting” that gained him and his running mate last-minute sympathy votes.

    I can’t help but compare democracy in Taiwan to democracy in the U.S. After 8 years of liberal policies under Clinton, the country decided it was time to take a turn in the conservative direction. Now that Bush is nearing the end of his second term, it’s almost a given that our next president will be a Democrat. Perhaps after four or eight years, the people of Taiwan will once again become disgusted with the ruling party and let the DPP or another minority party have the reins….

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