International Herald Tribune
Taiwan's choices
Monday, July 2, 2007

TAIPEI: Taiwan's choices

Taiwan is moving toward elections that may determine if renewed vigor can be breathed into its economy and its democratic process. Both are currently dominated by inward-looking concerns and a pettiness which irritate its friends - not least its chief protector, the United States.

Legislative elections are due at the end of this year and the presidential one in early 2008. The presidential candidates are already chosen: Frank Hsieh for the "green" camp of the Democratic Progressive Party and its allies and Ma Ying-jeou for the "blue" team of the Kuomintang (KMT) and allies.

There is a possibility that the two elections will take place simultaneously, which would decrease the likelihood of executive policies being frustrated, as now, by an opposition-controlled legislature.

In theory the KMT should win both elections due to the unpopularity of the current president, Chen Shui-bian, the corruption that has tainted his once-reformist DPP, and the KMT's efforts at rejuvenation.

But it may not be that simple. Hsieh is a canny operator with a reputation for effective administration, and Ma's control of his own party is weak.

In principle, the central divide in Taiwan politics remains attitudes to the mainland, with Chen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive Party being associated with Taiwan independence and the Kuomintang with eventual reunification with the mainland.

In reality, however, there are several shades of opinion on economic integration that are reflected in both main parties. The electoral battleground is firmly in the center.

President Chen may well spend his last months in office trying to shore up Taiwan identity issues by goading Beijing, but there is scant likelihood of the once-feared crisis in cross-straits relations in the run up to the elections. China has learned from past mistakes not to overreact and appear bullying. Chen's own influence has eroded and Hsieh has always taken a more pragmatic approach to relations with the mainland.

That is not to minimize the differences between the parties. Many in the DPP remain willing to sacrifice the economic benefits of closer links to avoid dilution of Taiwan's separate identity.

But even if their concerns are partly justified, they have not promoted the alternative to ever-closer mainland links - making Taiwan more international by removing barriers to competition in service industries, protecting intellectual property, encouraging import of foreign skills.

The economy has become ever more reliant on its amazingly inventive electronics/IT sector. Otherwise it remains sluggish, and attitudes inward-looking at a time when, in principle, Taiwan could offer alternatives to polluted Hong Kong for some international business.

As it is, restrictions on investment flows and travel mean Taiwan could lose more of its top talent to mainland lures, in the process weakening the very identity it seeks to secure. Direct links would well draw many Taiwanese and foreigners alike back from the mainland to enjoy Taiwan's much superior infrastructure, cleanliness and public behavior.

Between now and the elections, no progress in cross-strait relations can be expected. Beijing may be able to put up with a Hsieh-led DPP but will do nothing to give it a pre-election boost with, for example, a deal on tourism.

But Hsieh is a strong candidate who may yet be able to gain enough middle ground to win. Already he has said that there would (Beijing willing) be an immediate opening of Taiwan to mainland tourism and investment.

The KMT, meanwhile, seems to be shifting its focus from cross-straits issue, on which it may be vulnerable because of Ma's mainlander background, to economic issues.

Its vice presidential candidate, Vincent Siew, is a trusted if colorless former premier and economics minister who is of Taiwanese origin and is not associated with the endless petty politicking of which voters have grown tired.

Though favoring closer mainland links he, like Ma, has avoided seeking Beijing accolades showered on the previous KMT presidential contender, Lien Chan, which grate with Taiwanese.

In reality the economy has not performed badly, but could have done much better. It has fallen behind South Korea. There is a perception of stasis, to which Chen has contributed by his obsession with identity issues, and the KMT had added through its obstructionism in the legislature and defense of vested interests. Democracy may be strong, but standards of governance have suffered from political infighting, corruption and indecision.

So look to these elections not for fireworks across the straits but for a measure of whether Taiwan can raise its game, finding a realistic ways of combining democracy with Taiwanese identity while dealing with the realities of the mainland's economic and diplomatic pull.