Mr. Ma Ying-jeou, president of Taiwan, has won a second term. In elections held last weekend, Mr. Ma claimed a surprisingly large victory, besting Ms. Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Equally important, Mr. Ma’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party held on to its majority in the national legislature. The two outcomes hold out the promise of continuity in Taiwan politics and stability in cross-strait relations. Both are to be welcomed.
Mr. Ma took office four years ago promising to develop and stabilize relations with China. That relationship ran aground during the tenure of Mr. Chen Shui-bian, his predecessor, a member of the DPP and a stalwart independence activist (like many in the party). The ill will between Mr. Chen and the Beijing government poisoned every component of that relationship; China was unprepared to make any deal with Mr. Chen for fear that it might legitimate him, his party, and their outlook.
Mr. Ma’s first priority was getting Taiwan’s economy moving again; to do that he needed a working relationship with China. While the communist party fought the KMT during the civil war, Beijing is more comfortable with the party than any of the others on Taiwan. Indeed, both agree that there is just one China — their dispute centers on whether the capital is Taipei or Beijing.
Beijing also recognized that the best way to facilitate reconciliation, which it sees as a first step toward reunification, is building a productive economic relationship between both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
A stronger economy would help support the KMT’s electoral fortunes; would help convince Taiwanese that their fate is inextricably linked with that of China; and the Beijing leadership reasoned that the concessions that it was prepared to make to close deals would help form a better image of China among Taiwanese.
Mr. Ma’s government has moved forward with numerous trade and economic agreements that tightened links between the two sides of the Strait. The centerpiece of that effort was the Economic and Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) concluded in 2010. It has pushed two-way trade to $160 billion in 2011, a 10 percent increase over the previous year. China is Taiwan’s number one trade partner, and the biggest source of tourists to Taiwan.
While Taiwanese welcome the economic boost Mr. Ma’s policies achieved, they worry about falling too deeply into China’s embrace. The hard core of independence supporters in Taiwan is small (as is the group that desires reunification). But that is because many Taiwanese are realists and know that a radical change of the status quo — such as openly advocating independence — would cross a Chinese red line, would be destabilizing and jeopardize many of their hard-won achievements. Even Taiwanese who applaud the economic gains Mr. Ma has won — and there are some who complain that they are small relative to his promises; the economy only grew 4.5 percent in 2011 and is predicted to expand just 4.2 percent in 2012 — worry that China is getting too much leverage over Taiwan. They may be right: It is estimated that some 200,000 business people flew back to Taiwan from China to vote in the election; while not all voted for Mr. Ma, they had a big influence on the election outcome.
Mr. Ma’s margin of victory was larger than anticipated; the race was expected to be very close and many observers felt that Ms. Tsai might even prevail. Instead, Mr. Ma won 51.6 percent of the votes to Ms. Tsai’s 45.6 percent; the rest went to Mr. James Soong, a former KMT heavyweight who launched his own presidential bid. Equally important, the KMT retained its majority in the national legislature, winning 64 seats in the 113-seat assembly.
In remarks after the election results were known, Mr. Ma acknowledged the work to be done. His victory margin was larger than expected, but it was only about a third of the 17-point margin he claimed in 2008. Similarly, the KMT majority in the legislature is much reduced from the 81 seats it held in the previous assembly. Mr. Ma has said that he would learn from the criticisms leveled by Ms. Tsai and her party.
As always, finding a solid political center in Taiwan is difficult. Divisions run deep, even when differences among policy positions are not sharp. The KMT’s authoritarian legacy remains painful. Compromise is still seen as tainted.
Mr. Ma has to navigate difficult positions. While recognizing the role China plays in Taiwan’s future, polls show large majorities do not favor reunification. The president must go slow as he builds closer cross-strait ties, but the patience of the Chinese leadership may be shrinking — especially as Beijing undergoes its own leadership transition later this year and this untested new leadership faces economic headwinds.
Moreover, many of the low-hanging fruit in cross-strait relations have been picked. Now, the two governments have to tackle the difficult issues. Foremost among them is the continued buildup of missiles on the Chinese side of the Strait. As many as 1,200 are deployed opposite Taiwan. A reduction and removal would help diminish the sense of threat in Taiwan, but Chinese leaders are loath to give up what they see as insurance against the independence hot heads. Mr. Ma’s second term promises to be no less challenging than his first.