HONOLULU — Voters in Taiwan went to the polls in 17 counties and cities recently to elect mayors and magistrates. The ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party won 12 of the 17 seats and enjoyed an overwhelming victory in elections of county and city councilors and township chiefs. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won only four of the leadership posts (with the remaining one going to a KMT renegade).

As the dust settled, the DPP was proclaiming its resounding victory — “this was a no-confidence vote in Ma,” proclaimed DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen, while declaring that the DPP “has emerged from the bottom” — and Taiwan President and KMT Chairman Ma Ying-jeou was apologizing for the “relatively unsatisfactory results” and promising to do better. Huh?

True, the four DPP victories represent an increase of one over their previous standing and the percentage of votes earned by the DPP increased over what they enjoyed four years ago (when a larger portion of districts were up for grabs), but considering the severe blow the KMT struck against the DPP in the 2007 Legislative Yuan elections (which gave the KMT about three-quarters of the parliamentary seats) and Ma’s landslide victory in the 2008 presidential elections, one would have anticipated some rebound was only natural. The Democrats in the U.S. could only pray for similar results in the 2010 off-year Congressional elections.

In truth, the results could have been much worse, and likely would have been if the elections had taken place a few months earlier. The government’s handling of Typhoon Morakot was roundly criticized, and plunged Ma’s and the KMT’s popularity ratings to new lows. Ma’s decision to once again permit (perfectly safe) American beef imports has also drawn some political heat due to disingenuous rumor-mongering about exposing the public to mad cow disease (which reinforces Washington’s long-held suspicions about DPP tactics).

However, the economy is now starting to show some signs of recovery from the global economic recession and unemployment, which had bottomed out at a staggering 6 percent (Democrats, again take notice), is starting a slow recovery as exports rose for the first time in a year in October; the economy is expected to return to growth in the final quarter, well before the next (larger) round of local elections next fall.

As a result, Ma’s popularity is also starting to inch back up (to around 40 percent — still well below the 70 percent he enjoyed immediately after his election, which no one believed would be sustainable).

The biggest victor in the elections wasn’t even running. Credit for the DPP comeback has been largely attributed to Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen’s effective leadership of a split and dispirited DPP following the KMT’s massive victories of 2007 and 2008. Many are now touting her as the DPP candidate of choice for the 2012 contest against incumbent Ma.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that she is a friend, whose leadership abilities I admire, even if I don’t always (or even often) agree with her political stances. Her problem, from a hard-core DPP perspective (as well as one of her greatest strengths), is that she is seen as a bit too moderate on cross-strait issues, even though she has not (yet) led the DPP significantly in this direction.

Some, especially in the opposition, claim that the vote was a “rejection” of Ma’s policy of engagement with Beijing and predict (or hope) that the election setback will result in a slowing of progress in cross-strait relations.

I doubt it!

“It’s the economy, stupid!” applies as much to Taiwan as it does to the U.S. or elsewhere. What’s more likely is a modest but steady increase in the number of cross-strait economic agreements and increased Chinese investment in the island’s economy to further improve Ma’s standing (and further discredit the DPP’s anti-engagement stand, which had been helped by the economic downturn despite general awareness that Taiwan’s economy would have been even harder hit by the global recession had it not expanded economic ties with the mainland).

In fact, Ma’s No. 1 priority when it comes to cross-strait relations is the conclusion of an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which he and most economists expect will further jump-start Taiwan’s economy and hopefully open the door for similar free trade agreements between Taipei and many of its neighbors.

While Beijing may approach Ma and the KMT more cautiously and look to perhaps hedge its bets in case a real DPP revival is around the corner, it still sees Ma and the KMT as the only horse worth betting on and is likely to continue, if not increase, its attempts to bolster Taiwan’s economy.

In fact, the fourth round of talks between Taiwan’s Strait Exchange Foundation (SEF) and Beijing’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) is about to kick off in Taichung in central Taiwan, where representatives from both sides will sign a number of new cooperative agreements covering such items as industrial product standards, inspection and certification, and avoidance of double taxation.

ECFA is expected to be a “dialogue issue” at these talks, with both sides hoping to be able to sign the agreement at the yet-to-be scheduled fifth round of SEF-ARATS talks early in the new year.

The DPP is promising a million-man demonstration against the talks — it has been successful in disrupting but not undermining meetings in the past. If ECFA eventually sees the light of day and the Taiwan economy, as expected, continues to improve, the DPP’s “just say no” policy toward anything relating to cross-straits cooperation could come back to haunt them when the really important election comes around in 2012.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS (pacforum@hawaii.rr.com), a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and senior editor for Comparative Connections, a quarterly electronic journal (www.csis.org/pacfor).

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.