Ma's mandate to get relations back on track

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 March, 2008, 12:00am

Ma Ying-jeou's decisive victory in Taiwan's presidential election restored Kuomintang control over the executive branch with a clear mandate to normalise relations with the mainland without sacrificing Taiwanese democracy or sovereignty.

Mr Ma won in part because of his extraordinary personal popularity. In each of the past four presidential elections, a candidate with a compelling personality and story has defeated a more reserved, intellectual candidate. In Mr Ma's case, the fact that the KMT's political base is larger than that of the rival pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party accentuated his stronger candidacy to give him a somewhat unexpectedly large margin of victory.

But, another important reason for Mr Ma's victory was his unambiguous claim of Taiwanese identity. Taiwan's last dictator, Chiang Ching-kuo, Mr Ma's political patron and mentor, famously once remarked that he was Chinese and also Taiwanese - a breakthrough at the time.

Updating this acknowledgment, the Hong Kong born Mr Ma looked directly at the camera towards the end of his second presidential debate with the DPP's candidate, Frank Hsieh Chang-ting, and told the nation that he was Taiwanese, that he eats Taiwanese rice and drinks Taiwanese water, and that his ashes will be spread in Taiwan when he dies. The dominant Chinese identity proclaimed by Mr Chiang 30 years before disappeared, subsumed by the once subordinated Taiwanese identity.

With this statement of Taiwanese identity, Mr Ma placed himself in the mainstream of public opinion. According to a recent poll, 71 per cent of Taiwanese identify themselves as Taiwanese exclusively, 21 per cent as both Taiwanese and Chinese, and just 5 per cent as Chinese only. More than 63 per cent see Taiwan as a sovereign and independent country - a view that Mr Ma publicly endorsed just days before the election.

Identity and sovereignty have been the DPP's core issues for the past decade, so it was not without some justification that the outgoing president, Chen Shui-bian, remarked a few days before the election that his greatest achievement as president was forcing the KMT to adopt the DPP's platform.

Unfortunately for his would-be successor Mr Hsieh, the evolution of Mr Ma's views on identity and sovereignty left Mr Hsieh with few effective issues to build his campaign on. As a result, Mr Hsieh ran a negative campaign that attempted to scare voters with threats that Mr Ma's proposed opening to the mainland would flood Taiwan with cheap, dangerous products and uncouth migrant workers.

In the end though, the DPP lost because it has run out of ideas. Its greatest strength has always been its ability to move the Taiwanese people emotionally. Mr Hsieh cast desperately about for new ways to connect with voters but ended up recycling old themes from elections past.

Along with a noticeable cooling of political passions, Taiwanese voters also seem more confident of their ability to control Taiwan's future. Although the two referendums on UN membership for Taiwan both failed to reach the necessary minimum voting thresholds to pass, voters have become used to the idea that issues over sovereignty or Taiwan's ultimate destiny should be put to a vote.

This confidence explains why the crackdown in Tibet failed to have much impact on the election, despite extensive media coverage and widespread sympathy for the plight of the Tibetan people. Mr Ma articulated the Taiwanese reaction well at a press conference the day after his election when he asked Beijing to recognise that Taiwan is not the same as Tibet or Hong Kong.

Recognition of that difference will be the key to Mr Ma's dream of normalising relations with the mainland. If Beijing does not have the political imagination to work with Mr Ma, within the limitations of his mandate from the Taiwanese people, a pair of pandas in the Taipei zoo may be all Mr Ma is able to achieve.

Michael Fahey is a Taipei-based political commentator