The New Nixon’s Man in Taipei
This Saturday, I had the pleasure to observe the presidential elections in Taiwan. The country’s fourth direct presidential election, it was a historic moment seeing the Kuomingtang (KMT) return to power in a landslide victory after eight years in opposition to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The party of Chiang Kai-shek, the KMT has evolved from its early days on Taiwan when the dissidents were jailed (many of whom are now senior DPP figures) and the island was under martial law. The advent of democracy enabled the emergence of a “Taiwan identity” which the DPP cultivated, distancing itself from the mainland and causing a divide between Taiwanese who came from the mainland and those who identify themselves as Taiwanese. Today, the majority of voters identify themselves at either “Taiwanese” or “both Taiwanese and Chinese,” signaling that exclusive and schismatic politics are fading away.
The DPP swept into power in 2000, promising a change from decades of KMT domination, an era which many Taiwanese remember as corrupt and oppressive. By 2008, voters grew tired of President Chen Shui-bian’s inability to improve the economy. Furthermore, Chen’s family became embroiled in corruption scandals which have seen his wife and son-in-law convicted. Once he leaves office, he too faces indictment, and a trial seems all but certain. Taiwanese law does not permit the president to grant a pardon until after a conviction. The KMT President-elect, Ma Ying-jeou has a reputation for being clean, having been a former justice minister who aggressively investigated KMT officials. The day after the elections, KMT insiders were quick to begin speculating (and jockeying) who would be appointed to cabinet posts and it quickly became apparent that candidates only candidates with clean records would be considered. That said, the jockeying apparently was pretty fierce, with one KMT member referred to two popular Chinese films, stating that within headquarters on Saturday, the movie to watch was “Hero” while on Sunday, the movie was, “House of Flying Daggers.”
The KMT was very pleased with their overwhelming victory in the presidential election, which comes on the heels of landslides in the parliament and local-level elections as well. The KMT’s victory was virtually absolute with a number of particularly humbling losses for the DPP in key districts. DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh did not win Kaohsiung city, where he was formerly mayor, nor did the DPP carry Yilan county, the birthplace of the DPP.
Frank Hsieh ran a negative campaign rather than setting his own policies and elucidating a clear vision for Taiwan’s future. He attempted to motivate his base, known as the “deep green” (after the party’s color) voters who favor legal independence for Taiwan and complete separation from the mainland. Frank Hsieh emphasized that Ma Ying-jeou’s parents came from the mainland, accusing Ma of having a valid US green card (Ma had one while he was a student at Harvard), and played up Chinese repression of the Tibet unrest as an example of what China would do to Taiwan if Ma were elected. While Ma was presenting numerous white papers on defense, the economy and other domestic issues, the DPP were slow to come up with their own policy initiatives, and when they did come out, they were similar to many of the KMT proposals, which further raised the question of why the DPP had not been able to implement these proposals over the last 8 years they were in power. The Taiwanese voters were clearly fed up with the DPP’s ideology which created ethnic divides and seemed to ignore the reality that China is rising and needs to be engaged. Ma’s promise to increase Taiwan’s GDP by 6% per year and increase spending on infrastructure was well received. Now Ma will get his chance to prove to the voters that he can fulfill his promises, or else the DPP will surely rise from the ashes in four years and mount a credible challenge.
I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the crowds at the large and noisy rallies, the quiet determination of the campaign workers, and the dignity of the polling process. By all accounts, it was an extremely clean election. Alexander Downer, the former Australian Foreign Minister and now MP summed it up at dinner Sunday night, saying, “it was obvious to me that the election process was clean.” Like others in our delegation, he met with campaign workers and visited polling places before and during the election and he was impressed by the dignity of the polling process. He went on to say, “You can not argue that it was anything but, the ruling party gave up power, which is not an easy thing to do.”
President Bush called Taiwan a “Beacon of Democracy to Asia.” The process in Taiwan stands in stark contrast to the mainland’s carefully managed political process and Orwellian media which still embraces its government propaganda function. Chinese leaders increasingly mention the word, “democracy,” but they are referring to more managed, indirect forms of pluralism, such as “inner-party democracy” within the Communist Party. Party thinkers often state that China’s development has not yet reached a stage where widespread elections are feasible. While China has certainly made progress in liberalizing its society, it is a far cry from the cacophony of Taiwanese voices; media, NGOs, and private citizens all voicing their opinions, digging up dirt and informing the public on all facets of the candidates’ and parties’ campaigns. The first night I arrived in Taipei, jetlag kept me up all night, providing the opportunity to survey saturation political advertisements. It felt like home. Transparency and accountability were certainly demonstrated in this election, and Taiwan is clearly a better place because of the democratic traditions that have firmly taken root.