January 2024

Taiwan: pragmatism at the polls?

Twentytwenty-four will be a record year for national elections involving some two billion voters in 50 countries.

Among them are the big beasts of geopolitics such as the United States, India and South Africa, together with one whose results may be more pivotal to all our futures.

Taiwan, not even recognised as a sovereign nation, holds legislative and presidential elections on January 13.  Beijing regards it as a breakaway territory which, at some stage, will be reunified with the Chinese mainland –by force if necessary.

This island society has proven itself a template of how to transition from dictatorship to democracy without conflict and against the will of an overt and ever-present hostile neighbour. And, with a population of 24 million, Taiwan is also evidence of how democracy can flourish in a non-Western society.

This month its voters have a monumental task of demonstrating that electoral democracy remains suited for the fractious politics of today and that the choice they make can secure their way of life, avert conflict and improve living standards.

Ukraine and Israel-Palestine will be mixed in with voter calculations, as illustrations of how failure to compromise and understand alternate viewpoints has been a cause of war with massive loss of civilian lives and infrastructure.

Those conflicts are largely based on political rhetoric about unachievable goals. They include Vladimir Putin’s dream of recreating the Soviet empire and Hamas’ one of destroying Israel.

In a similar way, American voters were falsely swayedin 2003 with an argument that their style of democracy could be exported to Iraq through invasion.

Taiwan has an opportunity to show that it is time for such fanciful nonsense to stop. 

The two established parties make opposing arguments that have been in play since Taiwan became a full democracy almost 30 years ago.

The centre-left Democratic Progressive Party, which currently holds power, was formed in 1986 with the vision that Taiwan should be an independent sovereign nation, something that Beijing warns it will never accept.

The more conservative Kuomintang is derived from the Nationalist party defeated in 1949 in the Chinese civil war. Its view is that Taiwan remains part of China, albeit one that should be run by the KMT and not the Chinese Communist Party.

Taiwanese voters accept that neither of those visions, independence or reunification, will happen anytime soon and, through street protests and the ballot box, they have made clear their opposition to getting too close to China or being too antagonistic against it.

At the end of 2023, opinion polls indicated that the voters were slightly favouring the DPPpolicy of standing up to China, although the KMT was gaining support with its line that a more conciliatory approach lessenedrisk of conflict.

Voters will also be judging China’s reaction to their choice. How much, with its economy in trouble, rising unemploymentand fractious relationship with the West, would Beijing want to start a Ukraine-style war over Taiwan?

The Chinese propaganda machine, meanwhile, is busy driving home a voter choice of war versus peace while its military has stepped up intrusions into Taiwanese waters and airspace.

Open debate on these choices is exposing fresh realities on all sides.

Beijing has abandoned its previous carrot that the Taiwanese could embrace unification under the banner of ‘one country, two systems’,guaranteeing their democratic values while living alongside the mainland’s autocratic ones.  The clampdown in Hong Kong showed that such promises are likely to be broken.

But then, if it did come to outright confrontation, how much could the US be trusted to stand shoulder to shoulder with Taiwan?Defeat in Afghanistan and US Congressional cooling on Ukraine have shown that voters cannot depend on Americansupport.

At the same time, democracy itself is under global scrutiny for failing to deliver, particularly within the developing world. Divisions within Europe and North Americahave raised a question mark over the whole process, giving oxygen to the argument of authoritarianism.

While weighing up these high-stakes issues, Taiwanese voters will also be taking into account standard domestic ones like education, health and transport.

Navigating the ballot box through such complexity is a big ask of any electorate. What might set Taiwan apart is a growing Indo-Pacific pragmatism, the region’s tendency to prioritise head over heart and trade and wealth-creation over values and ideology.

The question facing Taiwanese voters is how to get what they want without their jumpy, bigger neighbour bringing out its guns.Can it demonstrate how a society retains dignity and freedom and grows its economy while dealing with a hostile, powerful neighbour which routinely threatens to invade?

Taiwan has been a pioneer before in this area. With this month’s elections, it can show how to lead the way again.