Victor Ma faces vexing questions

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2012, 12:00am


Taiwan's voters have plainly indicated that they are still eager for the status quo with the mainland. Their return of the Kuomintang's Ma Ying-jeou to a second term as president proves their faith in the warming of cross-strait ties and a concern about the independence-minded policies of the opposition Democratic People's Party. Saturday's win, although narrower than in the previous poll four years ago, is a relief for Beijing and Washington and Asian governments, and ensures stability and peace for the region. But a clear message has nonetheless been sent by ordinary Taiwanese that much more needs to be done to improve their circumstances.

Meeting expectations will not be straightforward. Ma took 51.6 per cent of the vote, 6 percentage points ahead of his main challenger, the DPP's Dr Tsai Ing-wen, a big drop from his landslide 17-point victory in 2008. With Taiwan's growth rate at 10 per cent, such a result would seem to be an overly harsh assessment of his performance. But the figure masks a perception by some that his mainland policy benefits big business at the expense of ordinary people.

There is every reason for such thinking. Despite booming trade across the Taiwan Strait, wages are flat, inequality is high, unemployment is rising and property in cities is out of the reach of many. The export-driven economy, already hit by a flat US market, is declining further as demand from Europe dries up. Increasing numbers of mainland tourists are arriving, but they are not viewed as having much impact on the retail sector.

How to reconcile expectations with what is attainable will be vexing for Ma, whose KMT now has a reduced majority in parliament, down to 64 of the 113 seats. It is a dilemma similarly faced by leaders across the developed world. Taiwan's policies should not veer from the course of strengthening economic and people-to-people relations across the strait, though. Whether Taiwanese are willing to admit it or not, the island's future lies in moving ever-closer to the mainland.

Ma first won office on a wave of high expectations after the corruption scandals that led to the downfall of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP. Chen's unswerving push for independence divided the island and deepened rifts with Beijing. Ma's policy of rapprochement with the mainland, centred on a free-trade agreement, direct commercial flights and tourism, have brought ties to their best since the civil war in 1949. Firm foundations for trust and understanding have been built and are blossoming.

Voters have given Ma a fresh mandate, but a large segment of society is also disillusioned with his performance. No issue is more sensitive for Taiwanese than unification, though. Regardless of the benefits, each step of economic integration has to be taken gingerly.