Friday, March 21, 2008

Will Tibet swing the Taiwanese election?

While Americans (and everyone else) remain remain fascinated by the apparently never-ending drama of the US Presidential election, there are also good reasons to be interested in Taiwan's Presidential election. The voting takes place on Saturday (which, in Taiwan, has already started).

My friend Erik Ringmar, a peripatetic political scientist from Sweden who taught for 12 years at the London School of Economics (until he and the LSE broke off their relationship in a less than friendly manner, as story dealt with along with much else in his book A Blogger's Manifesto), has been a professor at the National Chiao Tung University in Hsinchu, Taiwan, since the spring of 2007, so he is on the spot. Today Erik offered his take on the background and significance of the election (on his always interesting blog, Too Many Mangoes).
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Erik Ringmar / 林瑞谷
Friday, March 21st, 2008
the big one

Tomorrow is the big one — the presidential elections here in Taiwan. The people will decide to vote for Frank Xie, the candidate of DPP [Democratic Progressive Party], , the independence party, or for Ma Ying Jiu, the KMT, Guomingdang, candidate. [JW: For you history buffs, that used to be transliterated Kuomintang--the Chinese Nationalist Party long headed by Chiang Kai-shek.]

[JW: A snappy English-language TV-interview video with Ma is included in Erik's post.]

To a large extent people’s choices are determined by questions of who they, and Taiwan, really are. If your family came here with KMT in 1949 and you believe Taiwan is a part of China, you are for Ma. If your family has deeper Taiwanese roots, and you believe Taiwan is an independent country, you are for Xie [though this socio-political cleavage seems to be getting less sharply defined than it once was--JW]. As always when questions of people’s identities are involved, sentiments run very high.

I sympathize very strongly with the DPP’s’ point of view (and I have several good friends who are fervent DPP supporters). They feel their country was taken over by outsiders in 1949. Outsiders, moreover, who ran Taiwan like a dictatorship for some 40 years, imprisoning and killing people. Still to this day, DPP supporters tend to be under-dogs. On average they have lower socio-economic position and lower education. They want their dignity and their island back. All of this makes a lot of sense.

However, I’m really rather hoping Ma and KMT will win. To isolate yourself from China, as the current DPP president Chen Shiu-bian has done, is a very stupid policy which has strongly negative economic effects and which invites all kinds of unpleasant sabre-rattling. It’s outrageous, for example, that Taiwan is the only country in the world which is trying to limit the number of Chinese students and that there are no direct flights to the mainland. Relations to China have to be permanently sorted out and all military threats removed. Yes, it’s good for Taiwan. Only Ma and KMT is in a position to do that.
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=> According to the public opinion polls, until recently most Taiwanese voters seemed to agree with this conclusion (and/or were unhappy with the DPP for other reasons). Ma and his Nationalist Party appeared to be cruising toward a landslide victory. During the past week, however, events on the far side of China--in Tibet--seem to have had had a major impact on Taiwan's political mood. According to Friday's New York Times:
Violent unrest in Tibet has created shock waves in another volatile region on China’s periphery, shaking up the presidential election in Taiwan and sapping support for the candidate Beijing had hoped would win handily.

The suppression of Tibet protests by Chinese security forces, as well as missteps by the Nationalist Party, which Beijing favors, have nearly erased what had seemed like an insuperable lead for Ma Ying-jeou, the Harvard-educated lawyer who has been the front-runner in the race.

Concern that China’s crackdown could herald a tougher line on outlying regions that Beijing claims as sovereign territory, including Taiwan, has become the most contested campaign issue ahead of Saturday’s election. [....]

Even if Mr. Ma wins, the election may now give him a weaker mandate for his goal of pursuing closer economic ties and reduced diplomatic tensions with China.

A loss by Mr. Ma, which campaign analysts say is unlikely but now possible, would be a major setback for China’s leaders. They have cultivated the Nationalists in recent years to undermine Taiwan’s current pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian, and reduce the chances that his Democratic Progressive Party will hold the presidency after Mr. Chen’s mandatory retirement.

The stirring up of the election on Taiwan, which Beijing has long considered its top national security priority, is a potentially heavy price for the Tibetan unrest and the ensuing police action. [....]
If so, that might show that there is some justice in the world. But there's not really much justice in the world, so maybe it won't happen after all.
Both the Nationalists and the Democratic Progressive Party promise to reduce tensions between Taiwan and China. But China has been wary of the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh, who inherits a volatile coalition that includes many native Taiwanese who favor outright independence from China.

Mr. Hsieh and his party, with help from Mr. Chen’s ministers, have moved swiftly to turn Tibet into a central campaign issue. They contend that Tibet’s fate is a warning of Taiwan’s future if it does not stand up to Beijing. [....]

Mr. Hsieh abruptly turned a campaign rally in Taipei on Wednesday night into a candlelight vigil for Tibetans who have been killed, injured or detained during the Chinese crackdown. Party activists unfurled a huge Tibetan flag, and Tibetan students sang a Tibetan anthem. [....]
This is heavy stuff. These actions must be tapping genuine popular feelings of solidarity (or anxious identification) with Tibetans, because Ma has also moved to accommodate them.
With politicians from both parties concluding that the Tibet issue is hurting the Nationalists, Mr. Ma has focused on damage control. To the surprise of many even in his own party, he warned this week that Taiwan might boycott the Olympics if the Chinese crackdown in Tibet turned more draconian and if conditions there deteriorated further.
Speaking for a very non-expert perspective, this strikes me as a remarkable gambit for a Nationalist candidate.
Known for his gentlemanly style, his reluctance to engage in personal attacks on political adversaries and his long-held desire for more cordial relations with the mainland, Mr. Ma has also rushed to distance himself from Beijing by using uncharacteristically harsh language.

When Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China said Tuesday that Taiwan’s future should be decided by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, and not just by Taiwan residents, Mr. Ma condemned what he described as a “ruthless, irrational, arrogant, foolish and self-righteous comment.” Mr. Hsieh has rejected any boycott of the Olympics.

Opinion polls showed Mr. Ma with a lead of up to 20 percentage points last week; Taiwan’s election laws do not allow the release of polls during the final 10 days before voting.
So now it's up to the voters. Will Tibet swing the Taiwanese election? Stay tuned.

Yours for democracy,
Jeff Weintraub

The Result (3/22/08): In the end, the answer to that last question was no. Ma and the Nationalists won their landslide victory after all.
Ma Ying-jeou, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former Taipei mayor from the Nationalist Party, won by a convincing margin. [....] With all votes counted, Mr. Ma prevailed 58.45 percent to 41.55 percent and Mr. Hsieh quickly conceded defeat. [....]

Both parties’ polls showed an increasingly close race in the final days of campaigning, in contrast with the last polls by media organizations nearly two weeks ago, which showed Mr. Ma ahead by 20 percent. But in election day interviews, voters echoed Mr. Ma’s stance that closer relations with the mainland and its fast-growing economy represent the island’s best hope of returning to the rapid economic growth it enjoyed until the late 1990s.

Jason Lin, a 41-year-old interior designer, said as he left a polling place in Taipei that he had always voted for the Democratic Progressive Party until this year and remains a member of the party. But he crossed party lines to vote for Mr. Ma on Saturday because he was convinced that Taiwan’s economic survival depended on closer ties.

“If we don’t get into China’s market, we are locked into our own country,” he said. [....]

Two controversial referendums, calling for Taiwan to apply for membership in the United Nations, also fell well short of passage. [....]
Ma and the Nationalists appear to have convinced a lot of 'native' Taiwanese that they would do a better job of promoting Taiwan's long-term economic interests, both domestically and in terms of relations with China. But Ma also seems to have gone out of his way to convince voters that he would not simply be a patsy for China, and apparently he did so with some success.
Mr. Ma has taken a more cautious approach to the mainland [than previous Kuomintang candidates--JW], attending annual vigils for those killed during the Tiananmen Square killings in Beijing in 1989 and denouncing the mainland’s repression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement over the past decade. During the campaign, he ruled out any discussion of political reunification while calling for the introduction of direct, regularly scheduled flights to Shanghai and Beijing and an end to Taiwan’s extensive limits on its companies’ ability to invest on the mainland.

Chinese government officials had no immediate response to the election results on Saturday evening, but had made little secret of their hope that he would win.

“China has a love-hate relationship with Ma — when I visited China last November, they criticized Ma a lot, and then asked me to vote for Ma,” said Yen Chen-Shen, a political scientist at National Chengchi University.
Actually, Ma's victory is probably a source of satisfaction to both the Chinese and the US governments. The last thing the US government wants is for the Taiwanese to upset China, so they have become increasingly irritated with the DPP. But if Ma does his job, he is likely to do things that will irritate both Beijing and Washington, too.

Overall, whatever one thinks about the outcome of this particular election, it is hard to avoid reflecting that Taiwan seems to have developed a surprisingly stable and mature democratic polity--all things considered--in a pretty short time.
==============================
New York Times
Friday, March 21, 2008
China Tensions Could Sway Vote in Taiwan
By Keith Bradsher

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Violent unrest in Tibet has created shock waves in another volatile region on China’s periphery, shaking up the presidential election in Taiwan and sapping support for the candidate Beijing had hoped would win handily.

The suppression of Tibet protests by Chinese security forces, as well as missteps by the Nationalist Party, which Beijing favors, have nearly erased what had seemed like an insuperable lead for Ma Ying-jeou, the Harvard-educated lawyer who has been the front-runner in the race.

Concern that China’s crackdown could herald a tougher line on outlying regions that Beijing claims as sovereign territory, including Taiwan, has become the most contested campaign issue ahead of Saturday’s election.

On Thursday, China acknowledged for the first time that security forces had opened fire on Tibetan protesters in Sichuan Province, while also saying that protests had spread to several areas of China where ethnic Tibetans live.

Even if Mr. Ma wins, the election may now give him a weaker mandate for his goal of pursuing closer economic ties and reduced diplomatic tensions with China.

A loss by Mr. Ma, which campaign analysts say is unlikely but now possible, would be a major setback for China’s leaders. They have cultivated the Nationalists in recent years to undermine Taiwan’s current pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian, and reduce the chances that his Democratic Progressive Party will hold the presidency after Mr. Chen’s mandatory retirement.

The stirring up of the election on Taiwan, which Beijing has long considered its top national security priority, is a potentially heavy price for the Tibetan unrest and the ensuing police action. Beijing also faces a stronger international outcry over its human rights record and scattered calls to boycott the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games, which China hopes will showcase the country’s rapid development.

Both the Nationalists and the Democratic Progressive Party promise to reduce tensions between Taiwan and China. But China has been wary of the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh, who inherits a volatile coalition that includes many native Taiwanese who favor outright independence from China.

Mr. Hsieh and his party, with help from Mr. Chen’s ministers, have moved swiftly to turn Tibet into a central campaign issue. They contend that Tibet’s fate is a warning of Taiwan’s future if it does not stand up to Beijing.

“What has happened in Tibet in the past three decades, and what is going on now, is a warning to us,” said Shieh Jhy-wey, the minister of information and a Democratic Progressive Party member who takes a hard line toward Beijing. “We don’t want to have the same fate as Tibet.”

Mr. Hsieh abruptly turned a campaign rally in Taipei on Wednesday night into a candlelight vigil for Tibetans who have been killed, injured or detained during the Chinese crackdown. Party activists unfurled a huge Tibetan flag, and Tibetan students sang a Tibetan anthem.

A huge television screen at the rally showed a documentary on Tibetan history provided by the Taiwan office of the Dalai Lama, as well as a short video of Chinese soldiers mistreating Tibetans. Mr. Hsieh’s running mate, Su Tseng-chang, has scheduled a “Support Tibet” rally for Friday morning while Mr. Hsieh has scheduled a “Protect Taiwan Democracy” election-eve rally in Taipei for Friday.

With politicians from both parties concluding that the Tibet issue is hurting the Nationalists, Mr. Ma has focused on damage control. To the surprise of many even in his own party, he warned this week that Taiwan might boycott the Olympics if the Chinese crackdown in Tibet turned more draconian and if conditions there deteriorated further.

Known for his gentlemanly style, his reluctance to engage in personal attacks on political adversaries and his long-held desire for more cordial relations with the mainland, Mr. Ma has also rushed to distance himself from Beijing by using uncharacteristically harsh language.

When Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China said Tuesday that Taiwan’s future should be decided by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, and not just by Taiwan residents, Mr. Ma condemned what he described as a “ruthless, irrational, arrogant, foolish and self-righteous comment.” Mr. Hsieh has rejected any boycott of the Olympics.

Opinion polls showed Mr. Ma with a lead of up to 20 percentage points last week; Taiwan’s election laws do not allow the release of polls during the final 10 days before voting.

But surveys by both parties show that more than half of that lead has evaporated. Mr. Ma is now ahead by a more slender margin because of Tibet and because of an embarrassing incident in which four Nationalist lawmakers were caught roaming through the Democratic Progressive Party’s headquarters, politicians and political analysts said.

The closer race has reinvigorated the Democratic Progressive Party, which had been deeply gloomy after badly losing a January vote for the legislature. “We have narrowed the gap significantly since January and I believe the final outcome will be very close,” said Hsiao Bi-khim, the international affairs director of Mr. Hsieh’s campaign.

Su Chi, a Nationalist lawmaker and deputy campaign manager for Mr. Ma, said that Mr. Ma’s lead had narrowed in the last few days, but added that this was to be expected.

Many Democratic Progressive Party supporters did not vote in the legislative elections because they were disillusioned with corruption cases involving the current government, but they are now becoming more active as Mr. Hsieh has campaigned aggressively, Mr. Su said, adding that he still thought Mr. Ma would win.

Government ministers have helped Mr. Hsieh by repeatedly drawing attention to the difficulties in Tibet.

At a news conference on Thursday, Chen Ming-tong, the chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, the ministry responsible for relations with the mainland, called for the international community to put more pressure on China to begin a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibet’s government in exile.

Mr. Hsieh received an influential endorsement on Thursday. Lee Teng-hui, a former Nationalist president of Taiwan who now favors much greater political independence from the mainland, said he would vote for Mr. Hsieh.

The Nationalists and two affiliated minor parties captured three-quarters of the seats in the legislature in January’s elections, in a crushing defeat for the Democratic Progressive Party. The Nationalists’ capitalized on voters’ concerns about stagnant household incomes and paralysis in contacts with the fast-growing mainland economy — two potent issues that could still produce a victory for Mr. Ma on Saturday.

But the incident at Mr. Hsieh’s offices last week helped his party warn voters against giving too much power to the opposition. Four Nationalist lawmakers roamed through Mr. Hsieh’s offices in an attempt to document whether the building lease complied with election laws.

Mr. Hsieh’s aides trapped the four in an elevator, accused them of trespassing and called the police. A crowd of Democratic Progressive Party supporters formed and smashed the windshield of one of the police cars that rescued the four; Mr. Ma has apologized repeatedly since then.

Mr. Hsieh has staked out a more moderate position toward Beijing than Mr. Chen has. Mr. Ma has taken positions similar to Mr. Hsieh’s on economic issues, and he said that he would not seek political reunification with the mainland, still the goal of many Nationalists.

Many of the two men’s proposals, like direct flights to China, would require talks with Beijing, and are more likely to happen if Mr. Ma is elected because mainland officials have been reluctant to have formal contacts with the Democratic Progressive Party.

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