Three days before Taiwan goes to the polls to hold the country’s fifth-ever presidential and parliamentary elections, there’s the most unexpected sound coming from the other side of the Taiwan Strait: silence.
The elections in Taiwan – as usual – are very much about China. How close does this island of 23 million people want to get to their giant cousin next door? Do Taiwanese want independence from, or rapprochement with, Beijing?
The People’s Republic has an obvious stake in these elections. The four years since President Ma Ying-jeou won a landslide victory have seen an unprecedented warming of ties and an escalation of trade and tourism between the Communist-controlled Chinese mainland and the island that got away in 1949. Beijing’s dream of reunifying the two sides of the strait – unthinkable with Mr. Ma’s predecessor Chen Shui-bian – is back within the realm of the possible.
There’s no question Chinese President Hu Jintao would like to see Mr. Ma and his Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party win another term in office. A victory for his rival Tsai Ing-wen – whose Democratic Progressive Party has long promoted formal independence for Taiwan – would be seen in Beijing as proof that Mr. Hu’s softer line towards the island had failed, potentially strengthening those who would like to see the military option brought forward again.
But one thing Mr. Hu or any of the official organs of the Communist Party won’t do this week is say overtly that they’re rooting for Mr. Ma and the KMT.
Give Beijing credit for learning. It tried threats and bombast in the past – firing missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 in an attempt to warn voters against choosing Lee Teng-hui and threatening war in 2000 if Mr. Chen and the DPP were elected – only to see its pressure backfire each time.
This time, with the race between Mr. Ma and Ms. Tsai considered too close to call, Beijing isn’t saying a word for fear of tipping the result against Mr. Ma. (Most polls currently suggest Mr. Ma will win a narrow victory, although some are predicting Ms. Tsai will emerge as the winner, particularly if independent candidate James Soong has a strong showing and draws away some KMT supporters.)
There has been nary a word of commentary on China’s official Xinhua newswire this week about the election, only a straightforward summary of last weekend’s “Super Sunday” rallies by the candidates. When The Globe and Mail called around asking for interviews with experts on Beijing’s policy towards Taiwan, the uniform response was that they had been barred from speaking to the press until after the election was over.
That’s not to say the People’s Republic won’t have any influence on how Taiwan’s election plays out. In its silence, Beijing has left intact the impression that the cross-straits co-operation of the Ma era would end the moment Ms. Tsai is elected. There have also been persistent rumours that China has been encouraging or even subsidizing some of the 200,000 Taiwanese businesspeople living on the mainland to return and vote (based on the premise most would support Mr. Ma’s softer line towards Beijing).
In other words, the People’s Republic is starting to understand how democracy works on the island next door.
Telling people how they should vote doesn’t work. Quietly convincing them that it’s in their best interest just might.