The January 2012 Taiwan Elections and What They Mean

Editor’s Note: In a keynote address presented at a January 17 event on Taiwan’s recent presidential and legislative elections, Richard Bush discusses the election results and how they reflect Taiwan’s progress as a democracy.

I’m pleased this noon to offer a few personal remarks on Saturday’s election and what it means, to supplement the excellent presentations we have heard this morning and will hear this afternoon.

Saturday’s Election and Taiwan’s Democracy

Saturday’s election is impressive in several respects. First was the turnout. Around 13.2 million voters cast ballots, which is about 74 percent of the eligible voters. That was less than previous presidential elections, but a decline is to be expected as a democracy matures. Such a turnout level still demonstrates that Taiwan citizens take their civic responsibilities very seriously.

Second, this election cycle was peaceful. There was one small exception, a reported plot that the authorities foiled. But as far as we know there were no other attempts to influence the outcome through violence. That is a welcome contrast to a few past elections.

The third impressive aspect of this election was that it was competitive. If one looked at the DPP in the spring of 2008, after its defeats in both the legislative and the presidential elections, you might have predicted that it would not be able to give the Kuomintang a run for its money in 2012. The fact that this was a close election is a great testament to Dr. Tsai’s Ying-wen’s leadership in rebuilding the party organizationally, financially, and in terms of personnel. Indeed, over the last decade, both of Taiwan’s political parties have demonstrated remarkable resilience after having faced setbacks. That resilience is good for the public, because a democratic system without competitive parties doesn’t work well. In this election, the Taiwan people deserved a choice, and Dr. Tsai made sure that they got a choice.

Fourth was the quality of the two major presidential candidates: President Ma Ying-jeou and Dr. Tsai Ying-wen. Both are friends of mine, so I will rely on this assessment of Time Magazine, on which I really cannot improve:

“Neither Ma nor Tsai can resolve the island’s existential problem. . . . . Still, they do Taiwan proud. Both are informed, confident, articulate . . ., well educated . . . , well traveled, passionate about making a difference and genuinely concerned about the future of their land — traits any electorate would want in its leaders. Too bad one of them has to lose. But whatever happens, as the freest place in the Chinese world, Taiwan wins.”

A fifth feature of the presidential campaign was that the debate on the issues was pretty good. Now I don’t want to exaggerate this point. As a Taiwan friend of mine suggested to me, while U.S. elections have “agenda setting,” Taiwan campaigns have “scandal setting.” Now it’s certainly true that alleged scandals are a common feature of Taiwan politics, but the American process is not always a high-minded and substantive discussion of important policy issues. Perhaps I am a bit jaded, having sat through what passes for political discourse in this country.

In the Taiwan election campaign, President Ma ran on his record, after having presented voters during the 2008 campaign with a clear agenda for his presidency. Of course, he did not achieve everything he wanted to, sometimes for reasons beyond his control. Yet he did not shy away from submitting his performance to the judgment of the island’s voters. That is an admirable example for an incumbent official running for re-election. It is an example that is not always followed. Dr. Tsai emphasized the negative consequences of President Ma’s policies, successfully tapping the anxieties of those who did not gain so much from Ma’s first term and who were uncertain about the future. That is a perfectly legitimate way to conduct an electoral campaign. Of course, President Ma and Dr. Tsai emphasized the issues that each thought were advantageous and ignored those that were not. But that’s politics.

So the two candidates addressed serious issues, and objectively it seems that Taiwan voters had available good information about the points of key policy difference and where various candidates and parties stood on them. We will learn a lot more from exit polls about why exactly voters marked their ballots the way they did, but I am inclined to believe that they knew what they were doing when they cast their vote.

Taiwan’s practice of democracy is not perfect. Dr. Chu Yun-han has documented that in the middle of this past decade the Taiwan people had begun to lose confidence that democracy is a good system. I do hope that they are regaining that confidence. At the same time, I know that the Taiwan people would benefit from – and deserve – significant reform of some features of their system. I say that even as I willingly admit that the American own system is becoming quite dysfunctional. Any electoral system can distort the public will, including Taiwan’s. Still, I think that this election indicates that the Taiwan system can do a pretty good job of first presenting the public with a clear policy choice and then registering the dominant preference. So I hope that the Taiwan public is regaining confidence in the political system. Taiwan’s performance as a democracy should give PRC leaders a certain confidence that it is a system that can work well in any ethnically Chinese society.

What Does this Election Mean For Cross-Strait Relations?

The question on the minds of many is what this election means for cross-Strait relations. Will President Ma accelerate the process of reconciliation with China, moving towards negotiations on political and security issues? Of course, many in China would welcome such a trend. Some on Taiwan would fear it.

My own analysis is that such a trend is unlikely. The two sides made progress in cross-Strait relations in the past four years because they began with a conscious decision to focus on “easy” issues, mainly economic issues. Those issues have now been pretty much exhausted, and any new ones that Taipei and Beijing take up will be “hard.” That is even true of outstanding economic issues, such as liberalization of trade in goods and services, investment protection, and dispute settlement. The reason that economic negotiations are getting hard, I think, is that they increasingly touch on vested domestic interests in both China and Taiwan.

My hypothesis that future issues will be difficult is even more true of political and security issues. On these, I believe, the two sides have not yet laid an adequate conceptual foundation. For example, Beijing has signaled that negotiations on these questions should be on the basis of the “one China principle.” Taiwan would prefer the 1992 consensus. In addition, there is not yet a political foundation in Taiwan for negotiating these matters. I would fear that if the two sides rushed into negotiations on political and security questions, they would soon hit an impasse.

The smartest thing for Beijing and Taipei to do in Ma’s second term may be to consolidate the gains of the first one. In addition, there is potential for concrete steps like military confidence-building measures, assuming they were crafted in ways that fostered mutual security. I do hope that Beijing remains patient and understands the obstacles that must be removed before movement in new areas can occur.

Another area for forward movement is the continuing question of Taiwan’s international space. We have seen some progress in some – but not all – dimensions of this issue: the so-called truce on diplomatic partners; participation in the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly; and Taiwan’s ability to conclude trade liberalization agreements with third countries. But Taiwan wants a lot more in these areas. It needs a lot more when it comes to trade liberalization. Now that Beijing doesn’t have to worry about a DPP president for awhile, I hope that it will respond positively to Taipei’s desires and needs.

It is interesting to speculate on what would have happened if Dr. Tsai had won on Saturday. In the run-up to the election, the PRC said repeatedly that it would not deal with any Taiwan leader who did not accept the 1992 Consensus, which is the formula under which Beijing and the Ma Administration were able to expand cooperation economically while putting off consideration of political matters on which they disagreed. Dr. Tsai, who called the 1992 consensus as a “historical fiction,” campaigned on the implicit assumption that Beijing was bluffing. That is, if she were elected, China would have such a stake in the current status quo that it would have to accommodate her. If she was correct, she and her party could have secured the real gains of Ma’s administration but avoided what she regarded as the unacceptable costs of his policies and an unwanted political concession.

We will never know whether China’s position was a bluff. Here I am conflicted. My head – or my analysis – tells me that the bluff was serious and that Taiwan would have paid a price for a Tsai administration’s refusal to accept the 1992 consensus. My heart – my hope – was that Beijing would come around in the end and worked out some sort of flexible arrangement without appearing to have backed down from its fundamental principles. I tend to trust my head over my heart, and believe that if she had one cross-Strait relations would have stalled to some degree.

Yet as I say, we will never know. To the extent that this was the key question for Taiwan voters, they apparently were unwilling to take the bet that Beijing was simply bluffing. It will be interesting to see the DPP evaluates the reason for its defeat Saturday and whether and how it adjusts its China policy to take account of the result.

The Election and Taiwan’s Relationship with the United States

Let me turn to Saturday’s election and U.S.-Taiwan relations. The White House quickly released a statement congratulating President Ma and expressing the hope that the “impressive efforts that both sides have undertaken in recent years to build cross-Strait ties [will] continue,” in part because, “such ties and stability in cross-Strait relations have also benefitted U.S.-Taiwan relations.”

Now there was some talk that the United States took deliberate steps to help President Ma win re-election. I would only observe that even before President Obama was elected, he had created an implied linkage between President Ma’s cross-Strait policies and U.S.-Taiwan relations. Thereafter, the Obama Administration stated repeatedly it approved of the results of Mr. Ma’s policies, so it would be very surprising if the Administration had not taken steps to improve U.S.-Taiwan relations accordingly. The other thing I would say is that we will probably never know how much emphasis Taiwan voters placed on the American factor as they prepared to cast their ballots. I tend to believe that it was a tiny impact at most.

For the future, I would expect U.S.-Taiwan relations to improve. The two governments need to complete work on some initiatives, such as visa-waiver program. There are no doubt other places for progress. The area that is most compelling is the economic relationship. It is not in Taiwan’s interest to be excluded from the economic liberalization that is going on in the Asia-Pacific, even as it carries through on ECFA with the PRC. The United States should be a major target of Taiwan’s broader liberalization effort. This should be a strategic priority for both our countries. In pursuing this priority, neither Taipei nor Washington should allow narrow, domestic political interests to get in the way.

Now there is talk about the idea of the United States “abandoning” Taiwan. Some of the people who put forward this idea are pretty famous. One is even affiliated with Bonnie’s organization. Another shares her last name. But she in no way shares their views or is responsible for them. Nor do I.

The logic behind the idea seems to be that the United States faces a significant challenge from the rise or revival of China as a great power. Both countries talk about common interests and cooperation, but there is competition as well, and the future of the international system will depend on the balance between compeition and cooperation. Ensuring a good outcome will not be easy. In this fraught situation, it is argued, the United States, like the parent of rebellious teenagers, needs to pick its fights with China. Taiwan is thus deemed to be a strategic liability for the United States, a fight that either cannot be won or is not worth fighting. Our relations with China and the future of the world will be much better off if we leave Taiwan to the tender mercies of Beijing—so it is argued by others, not by Bonnie or me.

It is worth noting that not all the scholars who have speculated on U.S. policy towards Taiwan focus on the U.S. abandoning Taiwan. Some talk, in effect, about Taiwan abandoning the United States. The idea here is that Taiwan, for its own interests would shift to a policy of fundamentally accommodating China. Some scholars think that this choice would be rational for Taiwan and good for the United States. Others worry that the choice would be ill-considered and bad for the United States.

My own view is that Taiwan has strategic importance for the United States but as a strategic asset, not a liability. Please don’t infer that I mean that Taiwan could be part of some sort of U.S.-led effort to contain China. That would be inconsistent with both Washington’s and Taipei’s grand strategy, which includes engagement of China in certain respects. Rather, Taiwan is strategically important as a litmust test of what kind of great power China will become.

If China approaches the Taiwan Strait issue and the ROC in a way that is flexible and creative conceptually and responsive to the sensitivities of the people of Taiwan, that would indicate that China’s revival will be positive. It doesn’t guarantee that China will be a constructive great power, but it is a good sign. If, on the other hand, China’s approach is conceptually rigid, unresponsive to popular feeling, and laden with pressure tactics, that will send a different message about the broader trend. Because the United States has an interest in China’s revival being peaceful and constructive, we have a big stake in how cross-Strait relations develop. As Kurt Campbell testified in October: “A peaceful future for cross-Strait relations is central to the stability and prosperity of the entire region and is therefore of vital importance to the United States.”

Moreover, what the United States does concerning Taiwan will send important signals to America’s friends and allies both in Asia and around the world. Dr. Campbell again: “Our management of U.S.-Taiwan relations will have a great impact on the way our partners view us across the Asia-Pacific region.”

For the Future

By way of concluding, let me observe that, in my view, Taiwan needs a strategy to ensure that it remains economically competitive in a world of globalization and technological change. Economic liberalization with the island’s various trading partners is one part of that strategy, but not the only part. Other elements of that strategy probably include improving the education system and the policy infrastructure.

But economics is only one piece of what is a fairly daunting policy agenda. A second piece is that Taiwan must improve its defense strategy and the ability to carry it out, because it cannot be absolutely certain that Beijing will never use its increasingly robust military power in some coercive way. Third, because Taiwan’s sovereignty is at the core of future political and security relations with China, it should think in more depth about the content of sovereignty. Fourth, as I hinted, the political system needs reform to make it a better vehicle for reflecting the public will and making good policy choices. Taiwan’s 2012 election was, I believe, highly relevant to this policy challenge.

Why is that? As I was relaxing Friday evening DC time, I made a mental note of the obvious, that people in Taiwan had already begun to go to the polls and vote in this election. I then marvelled, not for the first time, that it is really quite remarkable that a society and its political leadership would entrust the selection of its leaders to ordinary people, people whose levels of wealth and education vary a lot and who probably don’t spend their every waking hours on the issues of government. Those of us who are citizens of democratic systems take for granted this impressive phenomenon, but it is actually not that common in human history, or even in the world today.

Whatever each of thinks of Saturday’s results, the people of Taiwan again confirmed this marvel of electoral democracy. Still, their anxiety and uncertainty about the future remains, for understandable reasons. So even as a majority of Taiwan voters endorsed President Ma’s leadership on Saturday, the electorate as a whole issued a challenge to all their elected leaders: that is, Taiwan’s citizens want their leaders to effectively meet the significant challenges that face the island today. We can only hope that Taiwan’s leaders merit the public’s confidence.