Taiwan elections: strait and narrow

The Taiwan elections matter, especially in a region where so many of the players are going through changes of regime

The Taishang, the million Taiwanese who work in China, are rushing back home to vote in Saturday's presidential and legislative elections, urged on by their mainland bosses to vote for the incumbent nationalist candidate because he has established calmer cross-strait relations. They will be carried on their way by discounted tickets, extra flights and paid holidays, in the organisation of which China is only too keen to collaborate. How things have changed.

Not all Taishang will necessarily vote for the incumbent Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang. Taiwan's founding existential issue, its relationship with China, is nowadays only one of a number on the campaign agenda. If you take China's definition of independence, both Mr Ma and his challenger Tsai Ing-wen, from the Democratic Progressive party, are pro-independence. They may disagree on the eventual long-term outcome, but in reality the gap between the two parties on this issue is often overestimated.

Mr Ma has been keen to keep the campaign focused on the peace he has established with China. He has much to crow about: 16 separate agreements, 558 direct flights a week between nine destinations in Taiwan and 41 in China, the first direct postal services and shipping routes for six decades. Mr Ma wants to instituretionalise the status quo: "no independence, no reunification and no use of force". With hundreds of missiles pointing at Taiwan, the point about the use of force is obvious. The missiles are on mobile launchers, but for all China's relative warmth towards Mr Ma – including the gift of a pair of giant pandas whose names together mean reunion – it has not moved them away.

Mr Ma is struggling on the home front, and it is on this turf that his main challenger Miss Tsai, a calmly competent negotiator and LSE-trained former academic, has made inroads into the KMT's once unassailable lead. Mr Ma's party represents big business, while Miss Tsai, whose DPP is strong in the agricultural south and among urban workers, has campaigned on wage inequality and social justice. A third candidate, James Soong of the People First party, is also contesting the presidency; if he gets 6-7%, it would be bad news for Mr Ma's campaign. Today's legislative election is as important as the presidential one, and will ensure whether the new president has the power to legislate.

The Taiwan elections matter, especially in a region where so many of the players are going through changes of regime. China's leader Hu Jintao is considered a moderate on Taiwan. But if what are seen by Beijing as its concessions do not get the votes they think are due them in Taiwan, the cross-straits policy could again revert to hardline nationalism.


The GuardianTramp

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