China Power

Ma Wins Taiwan Poll

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China Power

Ma Wins Taiwan Poll

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou comfortably wins reelection, beating the Democratic People’s Party.

Incumbent Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has been reelected, taking a comfortable but reduced margin of 51 percent of the vote, compared to 45 percent for the Democratic People's Party, while his Nationalist Party took a majority of 64 of the 113 seats in the island's parliament. The defeat of the pro-independence opposition paty appears to be an endorsement of the island's increasingly close ties to the mainland, and will be counted as a victory by Beijing, which has strongly supported Ma's Nationalist Party.

Ma is claiming a mandate to pursue closer ties with the mainland after an election campaign that focussed heavily on cross-strait relations, warning that electing the DPP could threaten a crisis in relations with Beijing.

But Taiwan Think Tank director I-Chung Lai told me in an interview that Taiwan's relationship with the mainland is unlikely to change much in the next four years.  Ma's margin of victory was reduced from 58 perecent in previous elections, while his party lost 13 seats in parliament. Lai pointed to fears that economic integration will eventually undermine Taiwan's political autonomy.

More importantly, Lai said, China's leadership transition will end the possiblity of serious negotiations after July this year. As a new president, Xi Jinping will need several years to establish his authority – a period during which Chinese leaders are usually unable to make the concessions Ma will need to sell a new agreement in Taiwan. Current President Hu Jintao passed China's Anti-Secession Law in the same period, which promises the use of force if Taiwan declares independence. 

Lai argued that a DPP victory would have made little difference to relations with Beijing.  Presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen had promised to abide by existing agreements, including the One China Policy. Communist Party leaders, Lai said, had prepared to work with a DPP president, opening party-to-party relations with the DPP and strengthening its non-political contacts in Taiwan.

While Beijing is undoubtedly pleased by the results, it remains uneasy with the prospect of free elections happening in a Chinese society. Apparently fearing democratic contagion, the Globe and Mail reports, mainland group tour operators were ordered to confine siteseers to their hotels on election day. Official media studiously downplayed election news – as Ma declared victory, the top story in Xinhua's Taiwan news section was about the birth of a Formosan serow (Chinese link) to a pair of the goat-like creatures presented by Taiwan to a Shandong zoo in April, although the People's Daily quickly published an editorial congratulating Ma.

While the mainland loomed large over the campaign, it has avoided the appearance of direct interference, instead working through networks of friendly politicians and businessmen, avoiding the direct threats it made during previous campaigns.

The last two weeks of the campaign were marked by allegations of American interference, as a former U.S. enjoy told Taiwanese television that the White House would “breathe a sigh of relief” if Ma were reelected. A late December change in administrative rules that allows Taiwanese citizens visa-free entry to the U.S. gave Ma an opportunity to boast of his foreign policy skills, leading to accusations that the Obama adminstration was seeking to interfere in the elections. 

Support for Taiwanese autonomy has been up for debate in the American foreign policy community in recent years. A growing number of analysts argue that pushing Taiwan into unification with the mainland would serve U.S. interests, highlighted by a November New York Times opinion article that suggested "selling" Taiwan to China in return for debt forgiveness. The administration denied Ma's request to purchase state-of-the-art American fighters in November, instead offering upgrades to Taiwan's current fleet of previous-generation jets.

Reunificiation is still a very long way off.  The Nationalists have downplayed their official “one China” stance as it has lost popularity.  Ma has refused to visit the mainland unless he can do so as President of the Republic of China, a concession to Taiwanese legitimacy that Beijing is unwilling to make. Recent polls have found that some 70 percent of people in Taiwan don't consider themselves Chinese. The United States is committed to defending Taiwan's present autonomy by the Taiwan Relations Act.