Tsai should be looking beyond the 2016 election
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Nearly eight months have passed since last year’s local elections. Since its crushing defeat, the Kuomintang ( KMT) as the ruling party has yet to rebuild itself, impress the public, or recover backing from traditional supporters and moderate voters. The outcome of the 2016 election is already clear. A united and confident Democratic Progressive Party ( DPP) is readily anticipating a transfer of political power from a fragmented and slacking ruling party in which the strongest potential candidates have indicated no intention to run amid low approval ratings of President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration.
DPP Chairwoman and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen is widely admired for her experiences in international and cross-strait affairs. Tsai graduated from National Taiwan University in 1978 and Cornell University in 1980 and obtained her Ph.D. in law from the London School of Economics in 1984 at age 28. Her experiences as university professor and trade negotiator opened the door to more senior positions in government leadership. Under President Lee Teng-hui, Tsai served on the advisory committee of the National Security Council. She was a chief architect of President Lee’s 1999 “Two States Theory,” which interprets the cross-strait relationship as special state-to-state relations.
In the Taipei political arena still mainly dominated by males, Tsai entered the scene in 2000 as the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) minister under President Chen Shui-bian. In just a few years, Tsai rapidly experienced and progressed to become legislatorat-large, vice premier, and chairwoman of the DPP. Following her 2010 campaign for New Taipei City mayor, Tsai has been regarded as a presidential figure who rebuilt the DPP’s vigor and can bring forth rejuvenated leadership. Be- cause polls continue to show Tsai’s commanding lead over Hung Hsiuchu, her KMT opponent, it is in Taiwan’s best interest for Tsai to set her sights for the long run beyond next year’s elections.
The next president of the Republic of China needs to overcome divides and break the incumbent political gridlock. Since the first transfer of political power in 2000, Taiwan’s ruling and opposition parties have experienced deadlock and stalled the passage of important laws in the Legislative Yuan. At present, for example, the crossstrait agreement on trade in services, the supervisory provisions for cross-strait agreements, and the special provisions for free economic pilot zones are awaiting deliberation and see no legislative approval in sight. Such partisanship and inefficiency make the government’s implementation of public policies especially difficult and in turn hinder Taiwan’s economic progress and national development.
There should be competition among political parties in a vibrant democracy. Opposition parties by their nature will not simply cooperate or yield to the ruling party because they must exercise their role of checks and balances. But impeding achievements by the party in power simply for the sake of it strikes a similarity to the “prisoner’s dilemma” in economic game theory in which two parties choose not to cooperate even though it might be in their best interests to do so. This vicious cycle is a lose-lose situation and arguably the worst possible outcome for the nation. Overcoming this prisoner’s dilemma will require the cooperation of both sides as a first step in creating a win-win solution. For example, independence and unification represent extreme solutions to the debate on Taiwan’s political status. It is probably a moderate solution in between them that can serve the best course for Taiwan. As such, the next president must have the ability to reconcile so as to resolve tensions, promote cooperation, and further public affairs.
Second, the government must be ready to take over and direct a new course of national development. In recent years, the global economic environment has changed rapidly, and Taiwan’s economy is facing enormous challenges. For instance, the AsiaPacific region has seen the adjustment of economic structures and the establishment of regional supply chains, which impact Taiwan’s position in the international division of manufacturing labor. The regional integration of trade and investment threatens the survival of Taiwanese businesses.
Domestically, Taiwan’s economic development confronts the issues of social justice and environmental protection. In addition to the persistent underemployment of highly educated young people and stagnant or backsliding wages, issues like the widening gap between rich and poor and unfair tax systems have spurred various movements calling for greater socioeconomic justice. Additionally, the rise of environmental awareness makes us question whether economic progress or environmental protection should take precedence in different circumstances. In light of these domestic and international pressures, the next president must be prepared not only to be familiar with the issues but also make timely decisions and convince the people.
Finally, the next president has to establish a coherent internal consensus in Taiwan so as to construct a new order in crossstrait relations. Since his inauguration, mainland Chinese leader Xi Jinping has not been afraid to collide on the external front with major powers like the United States and Japan over geo-political and maritime issues. Xi has pushed forth milestone initiatives and reforms, including a massive anticorruption campaign, the “One Belt, One Road” economic development framework, formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and expansion of pilot “free-trade zones” from Shanghai to Tianjin, Fujian and Guangdong.
In contrast, Taiwan under the past few presidents has been unable to reach internal consensus. This lack of popular mandate has weakened and made passive Taiwan’s negotiating position. Thus, on cross-strait issues, the next president must have the ability to build internal consensus, strengthen Taiwan’s position in cross-strait negotiations, and have a strong will to defend his stand. Only then can Taiwan expect to defend its own interests against the Beijing’s centralized and authoritarian leadership and build a new order in cross-strait relations.
Tsai Ing-wen’s political moderation as a presidential candidate suggests that she learned important lessons from her first rocky bid in 2012. Certainly, no politician can achieve all policy objectives at once. Leaders must be strategic in implementing change. Furthermore, voters prioritize the economy, and a weak economy undermines Taiwan’s international position. Tsai will need international support, especially from the United States, to achieve her agenda. Ironically, a more moderate course is also the only way that Tsai can achieve the DPP’s long-term goal of building a more sovereign and independent Taiwan.
Taiwan’s next president needs not only professional know-how but also wisdom in planning and compromise. As a scholar, Tsai’s entry into party politics in 2008 surprised many observers. Since then, she has led the DPP from the depths of defeat and overcome the older-generation leaders of her party and is currently attempting her second challenge for the presidency. While surely imperfect, Tsai’s courage, perseverance, and ability to solve problems present a new choice in Taiwan’s politics that continues to face the staggering of old and new ideas and daunting economic and strategic challenges.
In her memoir, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fittingly reflected: “Today’s headlines and history’s judgment are rarely the same. If you are too attentive to the former, you will most certainly not do the hard work of securing the latter.” This is advice that Tsai should take heed. Alfred Tsai currently attends Columbia University, where he is studying economics and political science.