25 March 2008

A New Day in Taiwan

Ma Ying-Jeou's resounding victory in Saturday's presidential election will usher in a new age in East Asia. Stability, the spirit of cooperation and perhaps, a sustainable peace, may finally find their place in the long troubled waters of the Taiwan Strait.

For that, we should thank Taiwan's incredibly astute voters. Despite much speculation and media hand-wringing, the Taiwanese electorate never lost sight of what's fundamentally important to them -- economic recovery and political opportunity.

Taiwan has lost much during Chen Shui-Bian's reign of terror over the past eight years. While the steaming Chinese market train chugged along, Taiwan missed out on the great opportunity despite all its advantages. And politically Taiwan continued to be marginalized because of Chen's insistence on provocative yet unproductive rhetoric that incensed China and heaped untold annoyance on the United States -- Taiwan's security patron.

Chen's failures as president has disastrous consequences for his party and its future. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was the majority party in parliament when Chen won the presidency in 2000. It was dominant in the south and competitive in the east and north. He won a disputed re-election in 2004, but mistook his narrow victory as a mandate, as he invested all his time plundering the government while sowing seeds of division between the islanders and mainlanders.

Taiwan's electorate, who had its first taste of democracy only in the mid 1990s, at first was easily manipulated by Chen's politicking. But remarkably, over the past four years, that electorate has grown considerably wiser. It delivered a devastating rebuke to the DPP in January's parliamentary election, reducing it to a fringe minority party with fewer than one quarter of the seats. And last Saturday, DPP's free fall from ruling party to political wilderness was complete.

Ma's Kuomintang (KMT) was clearly the beneficiary of voters' resentment of DPP's -- and Chen's -- abject failures. But Ma and his party had better not squander this goodwill. Taiwan's voters have given Ma and the KMT the next four years a carte blanche to get things done, and they'd better hit the ground running.

First and foremost, Taiwan needs to reach a long-term and meaningful detente with China. Essentially, without Chen's idiotic saber-rattling, China will have no rational reason for military action against Taiwan. A political accommodation will improve Taiwan's diplomatic standing in the world and a NAFTA-like pan-China trade agreement will be mutually beneficial.

Secondly, Ma's election gives him an opportunity to rid of the divisive identity politics that Chen so treasured. A mainlander himself born in Hong Kong, Ma was nevertheless trusted by the voters who are overwhelmingly islanders. He won points with a clean campaign that's focused on issues and also gentlemanly manners in great contrast to Chen's (and his DPP successor Frank Hsieh's) unrefined junkyard dog behavior.

Finally, and most importantly, a free, stable and peaceful Taiwan will have the greatest influence on China's continued liberalization. As traffic between the island and mainland increases, Taiwan will become a shining example for many Chinese what future may hold for them. Most mainland Chinese are fascinated with Taiwan -- for its democracy, prosperity and vibrancy. Taiwan has transformed itself from authoritarian rule to a full-fledged democracy in a quarter century -- it can easily become the model for a country and people who know political reform is long overdue for an oppressive and corrupt regime.

Taiwan's voters have chosen wisely. Now it's up to their chosen politicians to carry out their agenda. For Ma, much is given and much is expected.

No comments: