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Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010


Vote of confidence for the KMT

Local elections in Taiwan are considered a bellwether for national politics. By that standard, the Kuomintang (KMT), the ruling party on the island, should be feeling good. KMT candidates won three of five mayoral seats in the local elections held Saturday. While a lot can change between now and 2012, when the next round of national elections are to be held, President Ma Ying-jeou appears to have a mandate to continue his opening to China — as long as that policy boosts the Taiwan economy.

Mr. Ma was elected president in 2008 on a platform that promised to build better relations with China as a way to improve the island's struggling economy. His policies repudiated those of his predecessor, Mr. Chen Shui-bian, a pro-independence advocate and then head of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). After taking office, Mr. Ma reached out to Beijing, which quickly reciprocated, recognizing that a willing partner in Taipei is the best way for the mainland to realize its dream of eventual reunification.

That dream is not shared by most Taiwanese. They prefer recognition of their considerable achievements — building a vibrant, if not raucous, democracy and an economic powerhouse — and remain deeply skeptical of Chinese intentions. But the fates of Taiwan and China are deeply intertwined and the two must find a modus vivendi that serves both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Mr. Ma's government has concluded a series of agreements to build bridges across the strait. The most important of these is the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), signed in June and which reduces barriers to trade and makes cross-strait investment easier. The stock market has risen 12 percent since the ECFA was signed and the economy grew 9.8 percent in the third quarter (compared to the previous year), the fourth consecutive quarter of expansion. At this point, Taiwan is set to record growth of 10 percent this year, the highest level since 1988. It is too early to credit ECFA for that blistering pace, but there is no mistaking the economic payoff from Mr. Ma's approach.

No wonder then that the KMT did well in last weekend's ballot. The mayoral races represented 60 percent of Taiwan's population, and turnout was 70 percent. KMT candidates won in Taipei, Xinbei City and Taichung. DPP candidates prevailed in the cities of Tainan and Kaohsiung.

DPP supporters see reason for hope as well. Their party actually won more votes in the five races, claiming 49.87 percent of aggregate votes cast versus the KMT's 44.52 percent (the remainder went to independents). In fact, KMT votes dropped in all five cities compared to the 2008 presidential race. Second, while losing three of the races, DPP candidates did well in KMT strongholds, another indicator that the party is gaining strength. The shooting of the son of former KMT Vice President Lien Chan on the eve of the ballot galvanized KMT supporters; without that incident, the DPP would likely have done better still. (Mr. Lien's wounds are reportedly not life threatening; the motive for the shooting is still unclear.)

Finally, while DPP chair Tsai Ing-wen lost to KMT mayoral candidate Eric Chu in Xinbei City, that defeat frees Ms. Tsai to run for president in 2012 unencumbered by charges that she would be "abandoning" her post. Her party's strong showing and its recovery since the 2008 shellacking at the polls further validates her leadership and positions her as the front-runner to claim the 2012 nomination for the presidency.

Plainly, both sides can take heart from the ballots. But they should not rest on their laurels. Both parties must be positioning themselves for the 2012 vote, and that means working on messages, identifying candidates and doing everything possible to win voter confidence.

In many ways, the critical factors shaping Taiwanese politics are beyond the control of Taiwanese. If Beijing manages to slow its economy — fears that the mainland is overheating are growing — then Taiwan will feel the reverberations and slow as well. Moreover, an aggressive Chinese foreign policy, with nationalist overtones, could unsettle the KMT for two reasons. First, frustration with the pace of rapprochement across the strait could build and hardliners in China could demand more progress and faster. That would be a mistake, but in the leadup to the 2012 leadership transition in Beijing — 2012 is a big year for both sides of the strait — caution is unlikely to be a winning strategy.

Second, and in a related vein, Beijing's recent forceful diplomacy is likely to alarm moderates in Taiwan. While focused on its neighbors, Chinese muscle-flexing could be the prelude to a harder line against Taiwan. Such an approach would likely undermine support for Mr. Ma, his policies toward China and his party as well. Unfortunately, there is little sign that such concerns carry much weight in councils in Beijing.

Taiwanese politics are mercurial in the best of times. With both sides taking solace from these elections, the stage is set for a spirited — and likely bitter — contest for the 2012 ballot. The chief question for the rest of the world is how China will react to Taiwan's democratic politics. Its record to date is mixed and the prospect of its own transformation does not inspire much hope.

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