Taiwan: New Election, Same Question

While President Ma Ying-jeou has faced numerous challenges to his economic record ahead of next week’s presidential elections in Taiwan, the main issue that guides all elections on the island remains the same: whether or not it should or can remain autonomous from mainland China. From The New York Times:

Mr. Ma, 61, a Nationalist, has overseen a raft of agreements that have revolutionized the way ordinary Chinese and Taiwanese interact. There are now direct flights, postal services and new shipping routes between Taiwan and the mainland, and a landmark free trade agreement has slashed tariffs on hundreds of goods.

The agreements opened the gates to the deluge of Chinese tourists — 213,000 arrived in November, 30 percent more than in November 2010 — who buoyed the local economy with more than $3 billion in spending last year. Other firsts include a pair of giant pandas from China, an early reward for Mr. Ma’s Beijing-friendly gestures, and nearly 1,000 mainland students who now study at Taiwan universities.

The burst of contact has reawakened old sensitivities and raised new ones.

Ma and chief rival Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has historically supported Taiwanese independence and more recently sought a more democratic “Taiwan Consensus” to challenge Ma’s desire to maintain the status quo, largely sidestepped the issue of cross-Strait relations to focus on the economy during debates in December. Bloomberg reported that opinion polls released on Tuesday, the last surveys permitted to be published before the January 14 vote, showed Ma maintaining a lead over Tsai. Ma’s policies have defused tensions with China, according to Reuters, but opponents have argued that by doing so he has propped up Taiwan’s business elite while ignoring the needs of ordinary citizens:

Most polls show Ma with a slender lead over Tsai, who has focused her campaign on Ma’s economic record, leveling attacks that have struck a chord with ordinary Taiwanese wrestling with rising living costs, stagnant wages and unaffordable housing.

Ma’s response has been to showcase a coming “10 golden years” of peace and prosperity for all in Taiwan, a goal he says only he can achieve because of his policy of stable relations with China.

“In political terms, maybe people do not agree with us, but you can’t deny that the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement benefits both our farmers and fishermen,” Ma said in his last televised campaign platform presentation on December 24.

Ma has repeatedly rejected accusations that his policy is handing Beijing a chance to achieve its long-stated goal of recovering Taiwan, which has been self-governing since the Nationalists retreated there after losing control of the mainland to Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949.