Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Winds of change

Frank Hsieh, the defeated candidate in Sunday's presidential elections, announced his resignation at a meeting of the DPP's central standing committee today - in line with his election pledge to quit politics if he lost.

And he offered some pointers to his party: bring in younger people to top positions; reform and renovate; and become a relevant party.

"The DPP has for so many years promoted native consciousness, which has already won consensus in society. In the future the party will no longer monopolize Taiwan."

He said the party should hold an extraordinary meeting to discuss its future, saying "We must let the sound of reform ring out."

Some analysts wonder if the party can hold together, after suffering such big election defeats - with the KMT's landslide win in January giving them a 2/3 majority of the parliament.

But maybe not much of a honeymoon for Ma Ying-jeou, either, who has some formidable tasks ahead of him. This was what I wrote in a BBC analysis piece on Sunday.

The decisive win by the KMT’s presidential candidate, Ma Ying-jeou is being seen as a milestone in Taiwan’s political development, where he’ll become the first non-native Taiwanese to become President.

Mr Ma was born in Hong Kong to Chinese parents. And many had suggested that his Mainlander background could handicap him at a time of surging pride among the Taiwanese in their native roots – carefully fostered under President Chen Shui-bian’s administration to counter-balance decades of sinicisation when Taiwan was under the KMT’s one-party rule.

In previous elections, the governing Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, had successfully highlighted national identity issues and the threats from China to mobilize grass roots supporters. This time, though, much more practical issues – the economy and good governance – were the main issues influencing people’s voting behaviour.

“Mr Ma’s success shows us that ethnic mobilization by the political parties will not get them anywhere; most people are tired of it, especially when its whipped up during election periods”, said Wu Yu-shan, at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Political Science.

“This is a turning point. Hopefully this will turn a new page in Taiwan’s domestic politics. The losing party, the DPP, will have to do a lot of soul-searching to find a new direction. This is the biggest crisis the party is facing in its recent history…and I would not exclude the possibility of it breaking up into different political groups.”

Many are hoping Mr Ma’s win will also open a new chapter in the island’s turbulent relations with its giant neighbour and political rival, China, which regards the island as part of its territory.

He had promised voters an economic revitalisation and better ties with China. In the short term, he wants to lift existing restrictions on doing business with China and push for regular direct flights. The Kuomintang, or KMT, banned direct flights with China after they fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. But in recent years, there have been a limited number of charter flights during the main Chinese holiday festivals.

Mr. Ma also hopes to negotiate a comprehensive economic cooperation agreement with Beijing. In the longer term, he’d like to ink a peace accord, and agree military confidence building measures to avoid potential conflicts. "These are very ambitious plans which will require the other side's goodwill, but we have no choice," he told reporters one day after his election. However, he’s also made clear that before any peace talks can go forward, Beijing must first remove missiles targeted at the island.

“He will have smoother relations with China”, predicted Ta-Chen Cheng, professor at the Graduate School of Strategic Studies at Tamkang University.

“At lot of people expect Mr. Ma to improve the situation very quickly; especially since he says he’d like to have direct air links within one year. He will work to resolve this quickly; and he has a good team in place.

But many analysts are cautioning against overly-high expectations. “Economically, we can expect better relations”, said China-watcher, George Tsai, at Chinese Culture University. “But politically, we should not expect too much. The two sides need to build up mutual trust. Improved political relations will not be his first priority.”

Emile Sheng, professor of political science at Soochow University, agrees. “He wants to put aside all political controversies, and open up direct links and investment restrictions.

“But half of it depends on the Taiwan government and half depends on the Beijing government whether it is willing to open up economic ties without any political strings attached .I think that still remains to be seen.

“We’ll be able to see a more peaceful cross strait relationship because we know Mr Ma not going to do anything dramatic to provoke the Beijing government. But there are a lot of difficulties to be managed.”

The scale of Mr. Ma’s electoral victory – which netted him 2.2 million votes more than his rival – is a sign that the public wanted change and a new direction after eight years of Chen Shui-bian’s administration, which had brought the island into sharper conflict with China and, at times, also strained ties with the United States.

The US – the island’s most important ally – was among several countries that had strongly criticized a referendum backed by President Chen on applying for UN membership under the name “Taiwan”, rather than the island’s official title, the Republic of China, calling it unnecessarily provocative. The move failed to muster enough support to pass.

“In the case of the UN admission, the DPP’s proposal is tantamount to a disaster”, Mr. Ma told foreign reporters, “causing very serious downgrading of our mutual trust between Taiwan and the United States and actually antagonizing many of our friends in the United Nations”.

Mr. Ma will have to do some diplomatic fence-building. He has already said he will visit a number of foreign countries before he is formally inaugurated into office in May. He also wants to widen the island’s diplomatic space, which has been squeezed by China, which often blocks the island joining international organizations, but says he will take a flexible and pragmatic approach.

The Taiwanese electorate have voted for change. But, Wu Yu-shan, at Academia Sinica, warns that they may have overly-high expectations. “I think his honeymoon period will be very short”, he said.

Without Beijing’s cooperation, Mr Ma cannot make headway with his cross-strait plans; and a worsening global economy could make it hard for him to deliver on his economic promises of higher growth and salaries.

But Mr Ma is not so pessimistic. Only a day after his election, he’s suggested that he’ll be able to make enough progress to win a second four-year term in office.


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