By Jeroen Gelsing:
Many have observed that Barack Obama’s presidency has aged him beyond his years. As much, if not more, holds true for Taiwanese president Ma Yingjeou. Since coming to power six years ago, deep furrows and dark shadows have marred the 64-year old politician’s once boyish good looks, whose disastrous second term has seen his approval ratings drop to a precipitous 15%. The events of November 29 served to add a few fresh lines to his complexion. In regional elections, Ma presided over his Kuomintang (KMT) party’s largest electoral defeat in history, surprising even detractors of the deeply unpopular president.
And yet an imminent shift in political loyalties had appeared evident ever since large-scale protests gripped Taipei in early March. Thousands of students occupied Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, to demonstrate against Ma’s ‘cozying up’ to China and disappointing economic dividends. All politicking on the island ground to a screeching halt. Never before had this particular demographic group – students, young and highly educated, backed by the academic establishment – ventured to express their discontent against an incumbent so vigorously and in so organized a manner.
These same young Taiwanese, who turned out en masse to cast their vote three weeks ago, have now sealed president Ma’s political fate. Traditional bastions of pan-blue, pro-KMT support such as Taoyuan and Taichung counties voted ”Green” for the island’s main opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), for the first time in decades. Even the Taipei mayoral election slipped through the KMT’s fingers, falling prey instead to independent candidate Ko Wen-Je, who enjoyed broad support from the DPP. An analyst likened it to Republicans losing Texas. The events prompted Ma to step down as KMT party chairman. International media have widely pronounced him a ‘lame duck’ president for the remaining year of his term.
Ko’s success at the polls speaks volumes about the island’s political mood. Ko is a trained surgeon, a man without governing experience who, for all intents and purposes, is a complete political neophyte. The crushing defeat he inflicted upon long-time KMT stalwart Sean Lien, who hails from a prominent political family, is evidence of the widespread fatigue with the political establishment. For this reason, we should guard against interpreting the DPP victory as an ironclad governing mandate. Rather, the DPP secured the anti-vote: the product of the populace’s determination to express discontent against the Kuomintang for its perceived governing failure, with economic disappointments and worries over Chinese encroachment upon Taiwanese de facto sovereignty as the main prongs. Thus, the DPP’s gains are rooted in perceived Kuomintang incompetence, not the strength of its own agenda.
But irrespective of mandate strength, the DPP electoral victory grants it an opportunity to capitalise upon public discontent and build momentum. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2016. However, to convince voters to endow it with national power, the DPP must mend the breach in public trust it incurred during its last ruling spell (2000-2008), which still looms large in public perceptions of the party. Then president Chen Shui-Bian engaged in a high-stakes game with China by taking steps towards the formal declaration of Taiwanese independence from the PRC. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and an integral part of its territory. Beijing responded by flexing its military muscle and threatening with armed retaliation. It reminded Taiwanese voters of its arsenal of ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, carrying highly destructive payloads. Demonstrating little appetite for war, Taiwanese voters winced. At the next elections, they exchanged DPP recklessness for the KMT’s level-headed promise to improve cross-Strait ties.
Thus, the DPP will have to persuade the electorate of its political maturity and reliability. It will have to convince citizens of its successful transformation from humble origins as a 1980s anti-KMT protest movement catering to the desires of seasoned independence activists to a broad-based, mature political organization that can be trusted with the nation’s future. The Kuomintang has historically presented itself as the rational, smart political choice. Popular disillusionment with the course Ma has charted has punctured this presentation. Young Taiwanese have cast doubt on the value and veracity of the KMT’s self-image, leaving the party reeling. In effect, these youngsters regard Ma’s appearance as emblematic for the wider Kuomintang: aging, fatigued, and increasingly out of touch with voters’ wishes, lacking the willpower to correct the island’s course.
Therein lies the DPP’s opportunity. Over 60% of Taiwanese will be governed by the DPP during the next four years; the perfect chance to demonstrate administrative competence – and thereby responsibility. Should it succeed, then its chances of securing the 2016 presidency are very good indeed.
The question hovering unpleasantly in the background is this: what would a national power transition imply for Taipei’s relations with Beijing? China’s international military-political clout has increased exponentially since 2004, when Chen overestimated the people’s appetite for a confrontation with China over the island’s sovereign status. Beijing is rapidly diversifying its ways to intimidate and/or subdue Taiwan beyond threatening it with rocket fire. No matter which party occupies the presidency in Taiwan, and no matter its approach to cross-Strait relations, the power disparity between mainland and island will continue to grow.
In this context, it is critical to consider the unsettled nature of Beijing’s Taiwan policy, which has oscillated between enticement and intimidation since the early 1990s. As such, Taiwan’s electoral preference resonates far beyond the island perimeter to the halls of the Forbidden City, where China’s internal policy dynamics are played out. Troublingly, the recent election results may end up empowering Beijing’s hawkish faction at the expense of those that advocate ‘gradual rapprochement’, which has dominated since the Kuomintang’s return to power six years ago. Has the past year not proven that the silken touch does not work, with the Taiwanese population rejecting an advanced China-Taiwan free trade services deal – which is still stuck, unratified, in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan – and now the dissolution of popular support for the KMT, with its gradualist integration policies? Continued Taiwanese rejection of the gradual integration agenda might herald the end of the latest calm spell and precipitate a sea change in cross-Strait relations, with the marked difference that compared to the last rough patch, China is a decade mightier, a decade more assertive.
So what can Taiwan do? Militarily, it must maintain a convincing deterrent, but ultimately the island cannot keep up with the rapid expansion of Beijing’s fighting forces. Taiwan’s greatest defence must therefore lie in political robustness. However, the island’s chronic disunity might be its undoing; this can be easily exploited by a powerful adversary determined to divide and conquer. In cohesion lies strength, and politics has a pivotal role to play in its creation. Now that momentum has swung towards the DPP, it should strive to build unity where the KMT failed, so that Taiwan can face the future as one. Only then can the island offer a counterweight to the Goliath across the Taiwan Strait, whatever the future may hold.
Jeroen Gelsing is a PhD candidate in War Studies. His research concerns authoritarianism in East Asia during the Cold War. Jeroen has lived and worked on Taiwan, and published on its international politics. Follow him on Twitter here.