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Taiwan’s Presidential Elections And Turkey – Analysis


By Serafettin Yilmaz

As of the writing of this article, the 2012 presidential elections in Taiwan are less than two weeks away. The elections are certainly of great importance in terms of the future developments in what is called the cross-Strait relations. The outcome of the elections will have a direct bearing on how China and the United States are going to position themselves and develop strategies vis-à-vis the East and South China Seas. The common understanding is that China prefers the preservation of the status quo and desires the incumbent president, Ma Ying-jeou, to be re-elected. China is strongly in favor of the further economization of the cross-Strait relations so that an economic relationship will prevail over more contentious political disagreements over Taiwan’s future as a sovereign state. The neo-liberal expectation that closer economic relations would create interdependency and render any confrontation too costly for each side (obviously, more costly for Taiwan) seems to be the prevalent official strategy in Beijing.


Institutionalization of the relations, too, plays a role in China’s strategy toward Taiwan. In this regard, the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in June, 2010, was a major step toward the further normalization of the cross-Strait relations. The fact that the main election rival of the ruling Kuomintang(KMT), the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), staged a strong opposition to the agreement on the eve and in the aftermath of the signing of the deal is another reason for China to be wary of a possible DPP takeover after January 14. China’s emphasis on the viability of the institutions and frameworks has actually been manifest in the fact that the ECFA has thus far disproportionately benefitted Taiwan due to the fact that the number of tariff concessions given to Taipei is twice as many as the concessions that Beijing receives from its counterpart. In spite of the apparent disadvantage, China is willing to tolerate it in order to improve economic cooperation with Taiwan. The preservation of the status quo with regard to the cross-Strait relations, for that reason, remains to be to the best of China’s interests.

The United States, similarly, has been showing restraint in interfering in the election process. However, even though, officially, many U.S. experts have voiced their desire to see the continuation of the normalization between Taipei and Beijing whoever might get elected on January 14, 2012, the Obama administration in fact wants the current president Ma Ying-jeou to win the elections so that the pro-China U.S. policies would not be threatened by a pro-independent government under the DPP. The prevalent belief in Washington is that in case of a victory by the opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen, the two pillars of China’s Taiwan policy, namely the 1992 one-China consensus and opposition to pro-independence, could be challenged. It follows that any possible conflict between China and Taiwan would compel the U.S. to take sides in the crisis.

The Taiwan Relations Act, enacted in 1979, is the primary text that regulates the U.S. position vis-à-vis Taiwan. After the U.S. broke its official ties with the Republic of China (ROC) and recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole legal government of China, U.S. actions, especially those related to the security of Taiwan, have sought legitimacy under this document. However, the Act has been creating tensions between the U.S. and China because of the language it maintains. The contentious character of the act largely emanates from section two where it is declares that it is the policy of the U.S. “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.” Consequently, in spite of explicit Chinese reaction on many instances, the U.S. has kept selling arms to Taiwan. Any U.S. intervention is seen as a breach of sovereignty by the PRC. Having East Asia’s third largest armed forces in terms of fire power, Taiwan depends largely on U.S. military hardware and training. It follows that the result of the elections is unlikely to change this trend as long as Taiwan perceives Beijing’s one-China policy as a potential threat to its sovereignty and hence the U.S. will remain a key player in the future configuration of the cross-Strait relations.

Taiwan’s Democracy: An Uncompromising Process

Compared to Turkey, Taiwan’s introduction to democracy is a more recent but faster one. The ROC was established by the nationalist government of China when Chiang Kai-shek lost the civil war against the forces of the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong in 1949. The ROC was recognized by the U.N. as the sole legitimate government of China (including the mainland) and remained so for over two decades. In October 1971, U.N. Resolution 2758 expelled the ROC representative from the U.N. General Assembly to be replaced as China by the PRC. A huge number of countries, including Turkey, switched recognition to the PRC and downgraded their ties with the ROC. For example, Turkey currently keeps a trade office in Taipei and all consular transactions are carried out by the embassy in Singapore. As of 2011, only twenty-three countries recognize Taiwan as the representative of China, the number decreasing in favor of the PRC.

Until 1987, Taiwan remained under martial law in which no opposition to the nationalist government under the Kuomintang was allowed. During the martial law period, political dissent was strictly suppressed on account of protecting the country against communism with the ultimate goal of taking back the mainland. The main party of the Pan-Green Network, the pro-independent DPP founded in 1986, participated in the elections the same year even though opposition remained illegal under the national law for another year. Throughout the 80s and mid-90s, Taiwan went through a comprehensive democratization process. In 1996, the first direct presidential elections were held with the Kuomintang candidate getting about 55% of the vote.

Perhaps, the most monumental transformation in Taiwan’s democracy took place in the 2000 elections in which the power was transferred for the first time from the Kuomintang, which had ruled the country uninterrupted since the partition from China, to the opposition party, the DPP. The transition was peaceful and the DPP candidate, Chen Shui-bian, won the election, a victory to be repeated for the second time in 2004. However, that time there was the infamous 3/19 shooting incident where an assassination was attempted against the incumbent president and vice-president the day before the elections while they were on the campaign trail. Also, during both terms of the DPP rule, the party failed to secure majority in the legislature, which led to numerous gridlocks exacerbated by the lack of executive veto power. In the 2008 elections, after eight years of DPP rule, the KMT managed to take back the country’s top position (with about 60% of the vote) with Ma Ying-jeou as president. The KMT also achieved a majority in the unicameral legislative Yuan, one of the five branches of the government.

After its democratization in the mid-1980s, Taiwan developed a multiparty system. Currently, there are almost 190 political parties, although only five of them are represented in the legislative Yuan. Furthermore, one can identify two major camps in Taiwan’s political scene. Interestingly, whereas in Turkey, major camps are formed in terms of their ideological affiliation that ranges from right to left, in Taiwan, the differentiation is mainly based on the parties’ approach toward Taiwan’s status vis-à-vis China. Whereas the Pan-Blue Coalition that also includes the majority KMT party is in favor of the one-China policy and hence advocates the ultimate unification with the mainland under the flag of the ROC, the Pan-Green Coalition, which includes the opposition party, maintains a pro-independence posture, stressing the unique identity of Taiwan different from that of China. Lastly, it could be observed, whereas the DPP is considered stronger among the working class, the KMT is seen to be stronger among the middle and upper classes. In a sense, the KMT appears to be more responsive to business interests, hence the reason for the KMT’s pro-unification stance. It is undoubtedly to the benefit of Taiwan’s businesses to maintain good relations with China since China remains Taiwan’s primary FDI destination and largest trade partner.

Elections and Turkey

Although the Turkish government and scholarship show little interest in Taiwan’s election process, Taiwan’s phenomenal march to full representation might provide some valuable lessons with regard to Turkey’s own (ongoing) democratization. Strategically, Turkey’s interests are in line with those of China since Turkey does more business with China than with Taiwan. Therefore, it could be inferred that the continuation of the process of normalization in the cross-Strait relations will benefit Turkey indirectly. It does not seem possible that Turkey will relinquish its one-China policy that is in favor of the PRC. Consequently, a study of Taiwan’s elections within the context of Turkey’s own parameters remains largely limited to a comparative analysis of Taiwan’s democratization process with that of Turkey. Still, such an analysis offers several valuable insights.

It is worth noting that although Taiwan experienced a transition to democracy at a much faster pace than Turkey did, it has not suffered from any serious setback to the process. In spite of the fact that the country was run by a single party under military law for over three decades, since the multiparty system was adopted, there has been no intervention in the democratic process by either the military or the ruling (and founding, in a sense) party. This detail is important to take note of given Turkey’s track record before and after the endorsement of the multiparty system. The fact that Taiwan’s ruling party, the KMT, tolerated opposition in a constructive way offers an interesting comparison between the KMT and Turkey’s founding party in their respective reactions to power sharing.

On the military side, too, there is a good opportunity to devise an intriguing comparative analysis of Turkey and Taiwan. In Taiwan, perhaps very much like in Turkey, the army is regarded highly by the general public.

Compulsory military service is still in effect in Taiwan. However, by 2013, the country is planning to cut conscription to four months for all males and a switch to a professional force is expected to follow soon thereafter. This process also seems akin to Turkey’s own progression toward professionalism in the armed forces, a prospect that brings about further normalization between civil society and the armed forces as well as between government and the armed forces. In the final analysis, the normalization is expected to contribute to the interaction between society and government, bringing government closer to society and forcing it to be more accountable toward the electorate. However, historically, the impact of the military on the political process differs greatly between Taiwan and Turkey. In Taiwan’s case, the military seems to have distanced itself from the political processes in a more constructive and absolute way than was the case in Turkey. Today, in Taiwan, the military is one of the less visible components of the state and largely isolated from social life. This is despite of Taiwan’s history that was shaped dramatically by the military.

In conclusion, one can arrive at a number of sound inferences through a comparative analysis of the processes of democratization that have taken place in Taiwan and Turkey. The upcoming elections provide the required stimulus for the epistemic society in Turkey to look more closely at Taiwan’s breathtaking march into democracy in a short span of time.

Today, Taiwan, being one of the few viable democracies in the region, has every reason to be proud of the state of its civil society and government. Bearing in mind that every society has its own preferences and priorities, and perhaps not forcing any tailor-made model upon oneself, one can take the valuable lesson from Taiwan’s case that democratization and development do not necessarily have to be exclusionary; these two can go together. Moreover, it could be inferred that it is quite possible (without causing any tension and in-fighting) for the founding elites to agree to share power and for the military to renounce its mission of ruling and regulating the civil society. However distant Turkey might be from Taiwan in a geographical and historical sense, it can still benefit from the Taiwanese experience. This remains a great opportunity for a nation that is itself on a fast track of comprehensive democratization.

Serafettin Yilmaz is a doctorate student in Asia-Pacific Studies at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. He can be reached at [email protected]

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JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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