Sovereignty takes centre stage in Taiwan’s presidential campaign

By Anna Costa

What would IR scholar Stephen Krasner say if asked to comment on the electoral battle taking place in Taiwan in view of the mid-January presidential elections? Brought to international fame by his provocative Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy, Krasner would have a hard time explaining why sovereignty, if it really is more a fiction than a political reality, is playing such a crucial role in the electoral contest currently taking place in Taiwan.

The campaign race sees the incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou of the nationalist KMT (Kuomintang Party) facing two rivals: Tsai Ing-wen, Chairwoman of DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) and the latest addition to the campaign, James Soong of PFP(People First Party).

Mrs Tsai is the candidate who directly threatens Ma’s re-election. A former vice-premier with a PhD from the London School of Economics, she is the first woman to run for the highest office in the context of a modern Chinese state.

Mr Soong, a veteran of Taiwanese politics and a former member of the KMT, is now seen as a threat to Ma: the two share a position favourable to continuing on the path of economic rapprochement with mainland China and this is likely to split the China-friendly vote disadvantaging the KMT candidate in the run against Tsai.

According to the estimate of the Centre for Prediction Markets of National Chengchi University, Ma, who was previously considered the likely winner, is now behind the DPP candidate by about 4 percentage points (44.1% to 48.6%), whilst Soong is expected to obtain 8.2% of the vote.

This estimate was obtained by allowing people in Taiwan and outside to bet on the election outcome with fake money. Predictions made in this way have in the past proven substantially more accurate than the polls undertaken by local newspapers, whose political affiliations negatively affect the objectivity of their results.

Multiple reasons explain Ma’s descent from a position of comfortably large consensus at the beginning of the electoral race, to the current risk of losing it. In general, incumbents who were in power during the global financial and economic crisis have a hard time getting re-elected. The island’s slow wage growth, rising unemployment and a widening wealth gap have caused growing discontent amongst the electorate. Many are dissatisfied with Ma’s economic rapprochement with Mainland China, which, whilst benefiting Taiwan, has caused a flight of jobs and investment from the island.

Tsai runs with the two-fold advantage of not having led the country through a period of sluggish growth, and of arguing in favour of greater economic independence from Mainland China at a time when many voters worry about overreliance on Beijing. Karen Tsai, a financial-industry-worker, said: ‘Taiwan needs a president who will not solely count on China for its economic growth. Ma’s China-focused policy will only put Taiwan in a more vulnerable position both economically and politically.’

The issue of political vulnerability lies at the core of the preoccupations that are shaping this contest. Ma took his China-friendly stance a step too far when he declared that talks should be launched in view of reaching a peace pact between Beijing and Taipei within the next ten years. The unwelcome prospect of losing their country’s sovereignty to the regime across the Straits has alarmed a substantial number of Taiwanese voters who in reaction warmed to Tsai’s program of economic and political independence from Beijing.

The issue of Taiwan’s status has an existential connotation to it, as the legitimacy of the island’s sovereignty has been continuously disputed by its larger neighbour across the Straights. Mainland China, which never officially renounced its ‘national unification’ ambitions, considers Taiwan one of its provinces and has hundreds of missiles aimed at the island. Taiwan’s military alliance with the United States allows Taipei to maintain an ambiguous status quo whereby sovereignty is retained without recognition of independent statehood on the part of the international community.

This delicate international situation affects not only the course of Sino-US relations and therefore the security of the broader East Asian region, but also plays into power struggles at the level of Taiwan’s national politics. International competition has ramifications for intra-national competition, and vice versa: just as states compete with one another at the international level, within each state different groups compete with one another over control of the state and over the legitimacy to make decisions for the state. In Taiwan, this intra-state competition is especially visible, with Ma and Tsai competing for votes by offering two competing visions of Taiwanese identity in relation to its larger neighbour.

This election is fought on a large number of grounds, not least the environmental one and more specifically Taiwan’s energy policy, of particular relevance after the recent nuclear disaster affecting Japan. The decisive element, however, is likely to be the ability of the candidates to ingratiate popular support and stir it towards their own visions on the issues of defining Taiwan’s sovereignty and drawing the lines of the island’s relations with China, the US, the region and the world.

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