With the momentum in Dr Tsai’s favour in the closing weeks of a robust and stirring campaign, the polls had predicted a closer finish and even a possible upset. The Taiwan-born DPP candidate, though only in her second electoral race (she lost a race for the mayorship of New Taipei City in 2010), seemed to have been connecting better with voters who increasingly identified themselves as Taiwanese, in contrast to the Hong Kong-born Mr Ma. Dr Tsai’s campaign as the first female contender for the top job in Taiwan – or anywhere else in East Asia for that matter – had also taken on historic dimensions.
But in the end the vote fell into familiar patterns, splitting between the “pan-blue” (pro-China) north – the heartland of the KMT – and the “pan-green” (pro-independence) south, traditionally backers of the DPP. The damage to Mr Ma from the candidacy of Mr Soong, from the People First party and who had been expected to split the pan-blue vote, was largely contained.
In part the pan-blue coalition had benefited from a consensus in its favour on the issue of relations with China, which continued to be a major issue and is strongly linked to other important issues such as identity and economic prosperity. Polls have suggested that the sense of a Taiwanese identity has been growing stronger: according to one, the proportion of the population identified themselves as Chinese had fallen from 25.5% in 1992 to 4.1% in 2011, while those identifying as Taiwanese rose from 17.6% to 54.2%  . Nevertheless the benefits of the improvement of ties with Beijing under Mr Ma have been tangible, with Taiwan getting a preferential trade agreement, better transport links and a huge influx of tourists.
In this context, Dr Tsai unsuccessfully tried to fudge the DPP’s non-recognition of the so-called “1992 consensus” – an unwritten agreement between China and Taiwan in which they agreed to disagree over their respective definition of there being only “one China” – by calling for a “Taiwan consensus” that few mistook for what it was: a referendum on independence that would likely cross Beijing’s red-lines.
While she gained support from those uncomfortable with Mr Ma’s unexpectedly rapid tilt towards Beijing – last year Mr Ma hastily withdrew an unpopular idea to explore a “peace agreement” with the mainland – this seems to have been outweighed by those who did not want to rock the boat. This was especially since Dr Tsai – who served controversial former president Chen Shui-Bian as chairperson of the Mainland Affairs Council (effectively the minister in charge of China policy) during his first term – was perceived as being distrusted by China. Anecdotal accounts suggested that hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese voters working in the mainland flew back home to vote, with most likely to have plumped for the KMT.
Yet regardless of the looming shadow of China (which tactfully observed a quiet, neutral stance to avoid inflaming the contest), in many other ways the election was a breath of fresh air. Its tone was moderate and thoughtful, in contrast to previous ill-tempered contests, and was largely free of electoral violence or other shenanigans. Identity politics played a diminished role, with little of the kinds of attempts by the parties to play up the division between mainlander and Taiwanese identities as in the past.
A large part of this was due to the quality of the main candidates, Mr Ma and Dr Tsai, who were both well-regarded and moderate. Mr Ma had made a slow start to his first term and was justifiably criticised for his poor handling of the disastrous 2009 typhoon in Taiwan, but started racking up historic achievements in his engagement of China and by election time had recovered a largely credible image.
Coming into the race, Dr Tsai had fairly broad experience in government and impressive intellectual credentials as a former law professor. In contrast to Mr Chen, who had been jailed for corruption after his presidency ended in 2008, she has a spotless image and – as a relative outsider when she took over the party leadership in 2008 – has largely cleaned up the party. Tacking to a moderate approach, Dr Tsai revitalised the party and its image, presiding over several by-election wins before the January polls. Despite having resigned the leadership to take responsibility for the DPP’s loss in the polls – a gesture that is only likely to raise her stature further – the impressive Dr Tsai will probably be a favourite to win the presidency in four years’ time if she decides to run again.
In the meantime what she leaves behind is a more robust two-party system. The DPP has not fully shaken off its rabidly anti-China image, but it is becoming supported for more than just its singular stance on relations with China or on identity politics. Not a few Taiwanese papers (and not just the pan-green ones) have singled out a desire for check-and-balances among voters, who had gifted Mr Ma and the KMT with huge majorities in 2008 because of disgust with the discredited Mr Chen and a corrupt DPP. This time round the KMT lost 17 seats but retained a solid majority in the 79-seat Legislative Yuan with 48 seats, though the DPP gained 14 seats to get a tally of 27. Similarly Mr Ma suffered a 6 point drop in the popular vote, with most of the gains going to Dr Tsai, which would hopefully help to puncture any complacency on the KMT’s part.
The perceptible maturing of democracy in Taiwan is an observation not lost on legions of mainlanders who closely followed the race. One wonders what the mainland Chinese – particularly the younger generation – would think when they are treated to a different sort of political transition later this year when the Chinese Communist Party high command chooses from amongst its ranks the successors to the present generation of the country’s leaders. While in the short-term China would be relieved that the KMT continues to rule the island, Taiwan’s increasingly vibrant democracy may come to pose the trickiest long-term threat to the mainland’s aspiration of regaining the island.
: “Taiwan’s ordinary election”, The Wall Street Journal, 16th January 2012