Taiwan has just had a set of good elections. President Ma Ying-jeou and his Kuomintang (KMT) have won a second term with a convincing majority. But the elections had been tightly fought and the result of the presidential contest uncertain right until the end. A genuinely competitive election confirms that the democratic process is healthy and strong.
The presidential candidate who lost, Ms Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), proved herself a totally credible standard bearer for the DPP and gave Ma a real run for his money. This was no mean achievement as the DPP suffered a resounding defeat in both the presidential and legislative elections last time round, in 2008. It appeared so crippled then that many speculated that it would be a very long time, at least a decade, before the DPP could make a return. Under Tsai’s leadership, the DPP made itself a credible choice for the electorate this time. By making such a strong show she has done democracy in Taiwan a great service.
In line with the DPP’s long standing convention, Tsai resigned from the Chair of the Party. But let’s hope that she will return to mainstream politics in the not too distant future. Taiwan’s democratic politics will be poorer without her.
The strong showing of the DPP, which also significantly reduced the KMT’s huge majority in the legislature, is good for Taiwan, as no democracy can be strong if the party in opposition is ineffective and ineffectual.
What we now have in Taiwan is a clear mandate for another four years for Ma and the KMT – with a reminder that they should not take the electorate for granted. Exactly how it should be in a healthy democracy.
Why did Ma win so convincingly (with a 6% majority) even though polls before the elections suggested the race would be too close to call? It was probably due in a large measure to tactical voting. A key source of uncertainty for the presidential election was the impact of a third candidate, James Soong, on the floating voters. He commanded over 12% support at one stage, which fell back to about 6% in the week before polling day. In the end he garnered only 2.8% of the vote. Since Soong is a charismatic politician who broke away from the KMT, most of those who indicated support for him in the earlier stage of the electoral campaign were disgruntled KMT supporters. Once it became clear that Ma could really lose to Tsai, these voters would have to decide if they should act on their dissatisfaction of Ma and let Tsai win or vote tactically. The calculated risk Ma and the KMT took paid off in the end. Most of them must have voted for Ma.
The tightness of the presidential race also galvanized a large number of Taiwanese business people who work and live in China to return to vote. The number who did so is estimated at 200,000. This group did not previously make such an effort to return to vote in anything like such a large number. Most of them have investments in China or their careers are dependent on Taiwan maintaining good relations with China. It means a significantly larger percentage of them would vote for Ma as their business interests required them to vote for a candidate committed to keep relations with China on an even keel. With the prospect that Ma might lose becoming menacingly real, an exceptionally high number of them returned to vote for Ma. This did not figure in the pre-election polls.
The mandate Ma and the KMT has received is not one to move closer to unification with China. It is one to maintain a good and mutually beneficial working relationship with China and to steer Taiwan through the economic turbulence expected for 2012. Beijing will be well advised to see it for what it is, and not put too much pressure on Ma in the next four years to strike political deals over relations between Taiwan and China. Ma does not have a mandate to open political talks, just to keep cross-Strait relations on an even keel.
As for Taiwan, Saturday was a good day for its democratic consolidation.
Steve Tsang is Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies, Director of the China Policy Institute and Director of its Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham.