In praise of a ‘normal’ election

Taiwanese elections used to be very exciting events.  Not this time.  Even with the presidential and legislative elections combined, the electoral season this time round is marked by its relatively dull and uneventful nature.  Is this good?

I think so.  Elections in mature democracies are not normally eventful. Excitement is usually about how debates are won or lost.  Taiwan’s elections, particularly presidential ones, have, historically, been unusually eventful. Think about the PRC testing of missiles in response to the 1996 elections, Chinese threats of potential consequences should Chen Shui-bian be elected in 2000, and ‘the two bullets’ in 2004. Taiwan’s democracy is better off when its elections are less eventful.

Lest anyone think that the dull election so far implies Taiwan’s democracy is not so healthy I would like to point out that the tight competition between Tsai and Ma should put everyone at ease.  To an independent academic observer like me, at this stage of Taiwan’s development who or which party wins matters less than democracy winning.

In light of the very poor shape the DPP found itself after the 2008 elections, it is very heartening to see it making such a strong showing this time.  I am glad that Tsai is giving Ma a good run for his money not because I like her or the DPP – not being a Taiwanese I have no personal reason to prefer one Taiwanese party or leader to the other – but because a healthy democracy needs a strong opposition and keen electoral competition.  I would say the same of Ma and the KMT if the tables were turned and Ma were challenging Tsai as an incumbent president.  Whoever is in power and is dedicated to deepening Taiwan’s democratization should welcome strong electoral competition.

Whichever party wins the elections, Taiwan’s democracy has proved itself to be robust and healthy, as the incumbent party and president is being seriously challenged for a second term.

If Ma should win, the testing election should reassure all that he and his administration have been put under real scrutiny and passed.  His record and platform are clear for voters to assess.

If Tsai should win, there should be acceptance that she is given a mandate to introduce changes, though it is not entirely clear what changes she has in mind. It would have been better if the implications of a Tsai victory will be spelled out in greater detail by Tsai in the remainder of the electoral season.  Voters have a right to know what to expect as they cast their votes.  Tsai’s statement that she is willing to form a coalition government does not give a sufficiently clear picture for voters to gain a real sense of what to expect if they enable her to win the presidency.  There is still enough time for her to rectify this problem.

Returning to the subject of being dull and uneventful, I think Bill Clinton got it right about elections: it’s about the economy, stupid, he famously said.  At least it should be.  Taiwan elections have so far focused too much on cross-Strait relations. They should not.  Tsai is right in saying that Taiwan needs a consensus on cross-Strait relations. It should not be about forming a consensus on how to deal with Beijing, implying that Taiwan reaches a consensus on its identity. That is not going to happen soon. No party in Taiwan can impose that, or get everyone to agree to one narrative.  The consensus should be for all political parties in Taiwan to agree to take a non-partisan approach to cross-Strait relations. Cross-Strait relations are an existential issue for Taiwan, and as such require a non-partisan approach.

Taiwan will be better off replacing its colour politics (Green vs. Blue) with competition over how to define a better framework to lead Taiwan to development. Taiwan benefits when it should not matter much to Beijing whether the DPP or the KMT wins elections. This will of course not happen anytime soon,  but let’s celebrate that Taiwan’s elections have not been made eventful over cross-Strait relations this year.

Steve Tsang is Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies, as well as Director of the China Policy Institute and the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham.