The upcoming local nine-in-one elections have entered their final stages, with most public polls showing that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is likely to suffer huge losses, particularly in the mayoral seats of six municipalities and commissioner seats in 16 counties. Various polls, including some by KMT-friendly media outlets, suggest that President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration will lose at least Taipei, Greater Taichung and Keelung. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) seems likely to add at least two or three mayoral seats. Moreover, independent Taipei mayoral candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), who is supported by the DPP, is very likely to beat his KMT counterpart, Sean Lien (連勝文).
If the prediction is correct, Ma would face not only a potential power struggle within the KMT, but also uncertainty on cross-strait relations after Nov. 29. The chance for the DPP to win back central government power in 2016 will increase.
Facing such changes and dynamics, it is time to assess the nation’s domestic and external policy environment next year by identifying elements affecting cross-strait relations.
The Sunflower movement, which erupted in the spring, counterbalanced the way the Ma government fast-tracked cross-strait ties. In the summer, Chang Hsien-yao (張顯耀) was accused of divulging state secrets while serving as Mainland Affairs Council deputy minister. Chang’s case illustrated the lack of transparency in the government’s negotiations with Beijing. The cooking oil scandal this fall involving the Ting Hsin Group has further undermined the KMT’s election prospects, as well as public trust in Taiwanese business conglomerates that have invested in China and earned huge fortunes. Finally, the Occupy Central protests in progress in Hong Kong challenge Beijing’s so-called “one country, two systems” experiment.
Current cross-strait relations have entered problematic areas and require further reassessment.
After urging Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) for months to hold a meeting with Ma on the sidelines of the upcoming annual APEC summit in Beijing, Ma has seen his hopes for such a historic meeting evaporate after Beijing’s expected refusal.
In his Double Ten National Day address, he took a tougher stance, when after reiterating that Taiwan upholds the so-called “1992 consensus” of “one China, with different interpretations,” he expressed his strong support for Hong Kongers’ struggle for universal suffrage. Ma even appealed to Beijing “to let some people go democratic first.”
Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office shot back by saying: “The Taiwanese authorities should not make irresponsible comments about Hong Kong.”
Since Ma’s approval ratings have been dismal for a long time, he needs a high-profile meeting with his Chinese counterpart to divert attention from his incompetence, while leaving a legacy on cross-strait relations. However, deeply disappointed about Ma’s inability to push the cross-strait service trade agreement through the legislature, Beijing no longer intends to deal with Ma. Instead, China is preparing to join hands with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) leaders of the “post-Ma” era. Cross-strait relations are expected to slow next year as Ma becomes a “lame duck” president.
On the DPP side, the election prospect looks encouraging. DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) chances to win the DPP nomination for next year’s presidential election have markedly increased. However, even if the DPP wins big in the local elections, this does not necessarily mean it will return to power in 2016, since the pan-blue camp’s sense of crisis over the possible loss of central government power will increase, as will its resulting sense of solidarity. This time, Tsai’s opponent would no longer be Ma.
Tsai must not only lead the DPP to victory in the local elections; more importantly, she must address her party’s relationships with the US and China.
In a July interview, Tsai said: “If we can win the nine-in-one elections, China will automatically adjust its course in a direction favorable to the DPP; moreover, as long as China adjusts its attitude toward the DPP, the US will have nothing much to say.”
This statement triggered a rebuttal from Beijing and bewilderment in Washington.
Last month, former American Institute in Taiwan chairman Richard Bush said: “Washington has not been quiet” when it comes to Taiwan’s elections.
He mentioned previous presidential races in Taiwan, when Washington conveyed its views through actions, public statements or the media.
“We feel there is a need for us to express our views on how our interests will be affected by Taiwan’s elections. And to say nothing, as some in Taiwan might want us to do, is actually to make a statement as well,” Bush told a conference on China-Taiwan relations in Washington.
Bush’s statement does not represent US President Barack Obama’s administration and was not meant as a deliberate warning to Tsai, but rather restated facts.
However, in September 2011, when Tsai visited the US in her capacity as the DPP’s presidential candidate, an unnamed senior administration official told the Financial Times in an unsolicited telephone call that the US has doubts that Tsai can maintain cross-strait stability.
This incident strained relations between the DPP and Washington.
Could Washington not regard Tsai’s statement above as filled with the hope that the DPP will reclaim central government power and that Washington should keep silent? It is time that Tsai and her foreign policy advisers rebuild trust with the US.
The DPP can no doubt cite many reasons, including civic movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong such as the Sunflower and Occupy Central protests, as well as Beijing’s domestic uncertainties and assertive foreign policy, to convince the US that more caution and patience are needed for in cross-strait relations.
However, Tsai still needs a China policy that has more long-term direction and is able to continue the current cross-strait relationship so there will not be an imminent crisis.
She must win the support of Taiwanese voters and see that Washington does not take sides. Beijing will not go as far as breaking off cross-strait exchanges in a bid to exert pressure against the possible election of Tsai as Taiwan’s new president.
Therefore, it is high time that the DPP improve its policy discourse and strategic reassurances vis-a-vis the US, identify and communicate with the possible next US presidential candidates and establish substantial, trustworthy channels for dialogue with China to dispel Washington’s and Beijing’s misgivings about the unpredictability of the DPP leadership.
Liu Shih-chung is president of the Taipei-based Taiwan Brain Trust.
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