INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Presidential elections confirm Taiwan's vibrant democracy
, December 24, 2011
On January 14, 2012, on the centenary of the formation of the Republic of China, elections will take place for the presidency of the Republic of China in Taiwan.
Almost exactly 100 years ago, the Republic of China was established by Sun Yat-sen, following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the last of a series of dynasties which had ruled China for over 2,000 years.
The elections on Taiwan will set the country’s direction as it enters its second century, including the complex question of relations with the People’s Republic of China in Beijing.
Unlike the mainland where there have been no elections since the communist takeover in 1949, Taiwan has evolved into a vibrant multi-party democracy with a free press, in which the dividing line is over relations with Beijing.
Taiwan has also become one of the most prosperous nations in Asia, with many high-technology industries and universities, and is currently a major exporter of advanced technology throughout the world.
This is a remarkable achievement for a country which, 60 years ago, was primarily agrarian, and had just emerged from the ravages of World War II and the Japanese occupation.
The present presidential election is being fought between candidates representing the Pan-Blue and Pan-Green coalitions.
The Pan-Blue coalition includes the parties which officially support a “one China” policy of eventual reunification of Taiwan with the mainland, although not until genuine democracy and development are implemented on the mainland. Two of the parties which support this position are the Kuomintang (KMT, which means Chinese Nationalist Party), which ruled Taiwan after the communist takeover of the mainland over 60 years ago, and the People First Party, led by James Soong, a former KMT leader.
The Pan-Green coalition, led by the Democratic Progressive Party, supports formal independence for Taiwan from the mainland. The DPP led the political campaign to democratise Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s.
But during the eight-year period in which the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian held the presidency, he did not formally move to declare independence, as such a step was strongly opposed by many people in Taiwan, as well as by the United States, and could have led to war in the Taiwan Straits.
The current presidential election is a three-cornered contest between President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party, and James Soong of the People First Party.
President Ma was elected President in 2008.
The divisions in the Pan-Blue coalition, with President Ma being opposed by James Soong, potentially helped the DPP. In fact, early opinion polls put the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen and President Ma neck-and-neck.
However, President Ma’s strong campaigning, and his performance during the national TV debate on December 3, has put him firmly in the lead, with James Soong a distant third.
President Ma has campaigned for a continuation of the 1992 Consensus, an informal agreement between Beijing and Taipei, to accept the political status quo with the aim of eventual reunification at some time in the future, when conditions make it possible.
In the television debate, President Ma urged acceptance of the 1992 Consensus, and in present circumstances, acceptance of the principle of “no independence, no unification and no war” in engagement with China.
Tsai Ing-wen rejected the 1992 Consensus, which she described as an understanding between the Chinese Communist Party and the KMT, not the people of Taiwan, and instead campaigned for a “Taiwan consensus”, in which the people would determine their own future, with the outcome determined by referendum.
Although the difference between the two parties may appear to outside observers to be small, it has had deep practical consequences, particularly for relations between Taipei and Beijing.
Since President Ma was elected in 2008, Beijing has softened its implacable opposition to Taiwan, ended its bitter war of words and threats of invasion, permitted direct flights and shipping across the Taiwan Straits, encouraged trade and economic links, and softened its hard-line attempts to freeze Taiwan out of all international diplomatic forums.
Many issues still remain unresolved, including Beijing’s opposition to Taiwan’s military alliance with the United States, the presence of hundreds of missiles on the mainland pointed at Taiwan, and Beijing’s opposition to the US naval presence in the Taiwan Straits.
But the continuation of détente between China and Taiwan would undoubtedly be assisted by the re-election of President Ma.
In the meantime, the elections in Taiwan are being closely watched by pro-democracy advocates in China, who are pointing to the election as evidence that the Beijing regime should introduce democratic reforms, as a means of resolving the unresolved crisis of legitimacy of the Beijing regime.