Economy and political savvy will steer 2012 vote
This week, Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominated its chairwoman, Tsai Ing-wen, to run against the Kuomintang incumbent Ma Ying-jeou in the 2012 presidential election.
If elected in January, Tsai would be the first woman leader in East Asia since the regency of Empress Cixi in the last decades of the Qing dynasty, and the first woman leader in Asia who is not the wife or daughter of a prominent politician. Tsai's father was a truck driver from southern Taiwan who made a fortune in property.
Tsai resembles Ma in many ways. Like Ma, she is a graduate of National Taiwan University's school of law. Like Ma, she holds a PhD from a prestigious foreign institution and speaks fluent English. And both served at the Mainland Affairs Council and are versed in the art of dancing with mainland China.
Tsai's nomination represents the beginning of a generational shift that is renewing the DPP. She is the first DPP leader who did not rise to prominence in the crucible of the 1979 Kaohsiung demonstrations that sparked Taiwan's democracy movement. Under her quiet but firm leadership, the party recovered from the ethically deficient leadership of former president Chen Shui-bian, who is now in jail for corruption. Tsai convinced the public to give the DPP a second chance; for that feat alone, she deserved the nomination.
Ma, on the other hand, appears vulnerable. Just 33 per cent of Taiwanese approve of the job he is doing while 56 per cent do not.
Meanwhile, recent local elections showed DPP dominance in the south, and gains by the party in the crucial election battleground of central Taiwan.
Ma's unpopularity in Taiwan may puzzle some in the region. After all, he has dramatically improved relations with the mainland, opened direct flights across the Taiwan Strait, signed a free trade agreement with Beijing, and brought millions of mainland tourists to Taiwan, just as he promised.
These successes matter less inside Taiwan than one might think. Domestic issues trump international ones in almost all democracies, but perhaps even more so in Taiwan, partly because of the island's continued international isolation but also because its people are sceptical that the island's political status will ever change.
Ma will have to win on domestic issues. But, as president, he has seemed aloof from public concerns, preferring to rule through a host of PhDs like himself.
Another problem is the economy. Taiwan's working people have not seen pay increases for nearly a decade. Ma's opening-up to the mainland was based on the claim that Taiwan's economy would benefit as a result. Unfortunately for Ma, the main economic effect of closer business ties has been to trigger a bubble in housing prices.
But Ma has demonstrated many times before that he has an uncanny talent for creating a narrative that unites the people, transcending his many slip-ups.
As the DPP struggled to choose a candidate, Ma demonstrated his political talent again by cancelling an unpopular petrochemical plant in central Taiwan in a dramatic press conference on Earth Day. Ma used the issue to portray himself as a strong Confucian leader unafraid to bypass bureaucracy, take on powerful business interests and listen to the people.
Conveniently, Tsai supported the plant as vice-premier during the Chen administration. Ma, the leader of the traditionally pro-business KMT, will therefore be able to depict himself as the defender of Taiwan's land and environment against the destructive forces of unchecked development. This unlikely but effective new role signals Ma's strategic sensitivity. The reserved Tsai will have to work very hard indeed to distinguish herself from the more charismatic Ma.
Michael Fahey is a Taipei-based political commentator