Several big elections will take place around the world in 2012. The first was held on 14 January in a small island off the coast of southern China. For nearly twelve hours after the polling-stations closed and as the votes in Taiwan's presidential and legislative contest were counted, both Taiwanese and the many international observers tracked the unfolding tallies reported by the central election commission (CEC).
The supporters of the main rival political parties - the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - amassed at their respective headquarters; international officials and journalists shuffled between them and the CEC, while trying to gauge responses from the respective presidential candidates (the incumbent Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, and Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP); while across the capital Taipei and other cities and towns, waves of people gathered in bars and restaurants to wait for the results.
Whatever the choice expressed in the outcome, none at least doubted the integrity of the process. Taiwan's first fully open and competitive elections may have taken place only in 1996 (making 2012 the fifth in the cycle), but democracy in this island of 23 million people - while far from perfect - is an established, secure reality underpinned by strong citizen involvement. Its election campaigns are also among the liveliest in the democratic world.
This degree of popular engagement was reflected in the turnout in the 14 January elections, when around 13.2 million Taiwanese (74.4% of eligible voters) cast their ballots - an impressive proportion by modern democratic standards worldwide.
A changing Taiwan
But if Taiwan's democratic reputation was enhanced by the election process, what does the actual result reveal about its political realities and prospects over the four years until the next presidential and legislative contests? In particular, what are the auguries for the important cross-Strait relationship between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China (PRC)?
Amid a campaign marked by intense media attention to the rival candidates' every comment, nuance, and even facial expression, there was a tendency to overlook the fact that the two major political parties were offering rather similar solutions. By the eve of the vote, most analysts expected that the presidential contest would be very close.
So it came as a bit of a surprise that the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou emerged as an outright winner, with 51.6% of the vote against 45.6% for the DPP's Tsai Ing-wen. The 2.8% received by the third candidate, James Soong of the People First Party (PFP), was far lower than many experts anticipated.
Even the KMT seemed surprised by the size of its win. In his victory speech, President Ma said: "The people of Taiwan have also given me a clear mandate [emphasis added]: they want me to do all I can to complete Taiwan’s new historic mission."
The president went on to summarise this "mission" by interpreting the result:
"We have been re-elected because the people affirmed our efforts to reject corruption and adhere to clean governance. They also affirmed our efforts to open up, liberalise and revitalise the economy. The public has also affirmed our setting aside disputes to secure cross-strait peace, turning crisis into business opportunities."
While it may be doubted that the result delivered a "clear mandate", the election does represented an important benchmark in cross-Strait relations. It is notable that Ma trod carefully on the issue in his victory speech:
"Once I begin my second term of office, at least once every six months I shall invite political leaders not in government to jointly discuss national affairs, in the hope that we can really identify policies that benefit the people, so that everyone strives together on Taiwan’s behalf."
President Ma’s re-election was interpreted by some outside observers as an endorsement of the so-called "1992 consensus", referring to a meeting between representatives of Taiwan and the PRC that year and generally understood to mean a shared agreement both to accept that there is "one China" and that each side has its own understanding of what that "one China" means.
The question that arises here is that if the president considered his re-election to offer him a "clear mandate", why did he feel obliged to extend an apparent olive branch to the opposition? It may be because the election results were less an endorsement of the "1992 consensus" than (at most) a demonstration that the public were confident enough in his capabilities to manage Taiwan over the next four years - and that the KMT understands this, perhaps better than either Beijing or Washington, both of which seem to have invested unreasonably high stakes in Taiwan’s elections.
The elections did matter - after all, the winner of the presidential race would hold the top executive office until 2016, and a sweeping victory by either party in the parliamentary elections would give it full control over the legislative agenda (although no one really expected that to happen).
But the view of the United States and the PRC seems to go much further; they appear to believe - at least according to a statement by a senior US official in September 2011 (admittedly unattributed and unnamed), the impromptu remarks on election eve of a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), and the verbal barrage on the DPP’s presidential candidate by the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office - that Taiwan's elections were a zero-sum game.
This is a dangerous misreading, which gets badly wrong the implications of the elections for cross-Strait relations. Such a bifocal lens misses the many nuances that emerged through the election, which the opposition candidate Tsai Ing-Wen (in her concession speech) hinted at as much as did Ma Ying-jeou:
"Taiwan cannot afford to be without an opposition voice or be without checks and balances. Even though we will not be able to achieve our ideals from a governing role in the next four years, this does not mean that the opposition will have no power."
The DPP figurehead went on to outline the party's intentions:
"The reform and transformation of the DPP will not cease. We will continue to stand by the people, especially those that are disadvantaged in our society. We will continue to stand by our policy ideals, and we will continue to insist on disassociating ourselves from corporate money and rely on small-sum donations. We will continue to forge ahead, believing that one day, we will gain the trust of the majority."
The misunderstanding of the two external actors (the US and PRC) consists in the fact that they alike subscribe to what might be called the "inevitability" theory that views anything that happens in Taiwan as tending either to Taiwan toward "independence" or "unification". This dichotomous conceptualisation of cross-Strait development tends to lead its advocates to "overreact" and thus miss an important trend: namely, that since 2008 there has been a fundamental shift in the orientation of the Taiwanese electorate away from "unification or independence".
A dangerous misreading
An illustration of this point is the decreasing salience of Taiwanese identity as an electoral issue. Identity politics had been a major dividing-line between the parties in previous elections. At the same time, this does not mean that a sense of Taiwanese identity itself is decreasing. On the contrary: a poll released by TVBS in early 2011 that asked respondents "In our society, some people think that they are Chinese while others think that they are Taiwanese. What do you think you are?" found that 72% responded "Taiwanese" and 17% responded "Chinese".
A poll conducted by researchers at the Academia Sinica in 2004 is an interesting counterpart here: 45.7% of respondents then identified themselves as "Taiwanese" and 6.3% as "Chinese", whereas a similar poll in 1991 had found these figures to be 13.6% ("Taiwanese") and 43.9% ("Chinese").
These findings are significant in three ways. First, they show that despite the rapid expansion of economic, cultural and political ties across the Strait, people in Taiwan increasingly identify themselves as Taiwanese. Second, they suggest the fears that growing integration between Taiwan and China since 2008 (when the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou was elected after eight years of a DPP president) would lead to an erosion of Taiwanese identity have not materialised. Third, they indicate that Taiwanese identity has been consolidated in the mainstream consciousness of voters.
The conclusion follows that Taiwan is neither on an inevitable path of unification under the PRC nor is it headed on a path toward independence. In fact, the status quo - at least in Taiwan - no longer centres on the issue of "unification vs independence". And, even more important, there appears to be an emerging societal consensus - and by extension political-party consensus between the KMT and DPP - on Taiwan’s sovereign status.
If, however, Taiwan’s sovereign status is threatened or seen to be at risk - and by all accounts, Beijing does appear poised to apply even greater pressure on the Ma administration to enter into political negotiations - then people’s attitudes could change, and both parties’ policies may shift away from this more pragmatic approach. After all, democratisation is a dynamic process.
The danger here is that a flawed understanding of the 2012 election result by the US and the PRC could lead to misguided knee-jerk reactions and bad policy. This increases the onus on Ma Ying-jeou to live up to his re-election promise and include the opposition in formulating a "national" cross-Strait policy.
For their part, Washington should take active measures to shore up Taiwan’s sovereignty rather than muddling through as it has for the past four years, and the Chinese Communist Party should think out of its box and engage the DPP. Without that, these actors and other observers shouldn’t be surprised if they then face two very different political parties and a changed electorate in Taiwan by 2016.