Ethnic politics has driven the nation's political evolution for the past two decades and is likely to be a deciding factor in the upcoming presidential election.
The notion of "Taiwanese being their own master," or "letting Taiwanese decide their future," constitutes the main element of ethnic campaigns in the country.
The first manifestation of ethnic politics was the first direct presidential election in 1996, when Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), an ethnic Taiwanese, was elected. Lee skillfully borrowed from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) handling of ethnic issues and attempted to transform the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) into a "Taiwanese" political party. Since then, except for those who hold extreme pro-unification views, almost every politician has tried to some extent to embrace the concept of "Taiwanese identity" as a way to win votes.
Even though Lee's attempt failed when the KMT lost the 2000 presidential race, the so-called "Taiwan-centered consciousness" has gradually taken root, particularly after the DPP became the ruling party.
Therefore, it is not surprising to see KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou's (
Ma's campaign strategy of riding a bike around the nation to experience "daily life in the country" by taking a so-called "long stay" was designed to strengthen his image of being truly Taiwanese and hopefully sway erstwhile DPP supporters.
Ma's campaign opens up a slew of interesting questions.
First, if the ethnic issue is not a problem as Ma insists, why would he need to spend so much time with everyday people?
Second, how accepting would Taiwanese voters -- or DPP voters for that matter -- of a non-ethnic Taiwanese president?
Third, can a "mainlander" like Ma -- who does not even speak fluent Taiwanese -- win enough support from light-green voters to win an election?
And finally, can Taiwanese voters select their next president without taking ethnicity into account?
These are the questions that have long dogged Ma's political career, although he says he has settled his own struggle with ethnic identity. It remains to be seen whether Ma is Taiwanese enough to win the election.
Ma finds himself walking a tightrope largely because he is not running purely as a representative of KMT supporters -- he also needs to win the backing of light-green and centrist voters. He faces the difficult task of needing to appeal to both of these groups while remaining true to himself and his party, which still advocates an ultimate unification with China.
Simply pretending to experience a day in the life of farmers and fishermen is not enough for Ma to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese. It only shows Ma is still an outsider who does not speak the same language as voters outside Taipei.
Establishing a real connection with centrist voters entails more than just speaking Taiwanese and shaking hands with people in traditional markets -- it requires intimate exchanges of life experiences and thoughts. Such a connection requires long-time cultural interaction, rather than "short stay," cheap political stunts.
To effectively win over light-green voters, Ma has to prove the depth of his love for the nation and its people. He must prove that he is willing to make sacrifices for Taiwan. If Ma cannot safeguard the nation's sovereignty in the face of Beijing's diplomatic oppression, he is not qualified to become president. If Ma is only pretending to be interested in everyday people and the nation's sovereignty, he does not deserve to become president.