Monday, January 16, 2012

Being Choosy About The Choice To Choose

As I mentioned in my previous post my time here in Taiwan has coincided with election season. In western Europe elections are not particularly visible to the casual visitor going about their daily sightseeing. The same cannot be said for Taiwan. Posters supporting this or that candidate, with the number to tick on the ballot paper prominently displayed, occupied every free bit of wall space and every lamp post, even in the meanest little village. Everywhere volunteers in blue waistcoats can be seen canvassing and handing out fliers whilst scooters and vans with loudspeakers diligently plough the streets declaiming to all who will listen the merits of their party over the other.

Election flags outside the KMT party offices in Taichung. The incumbent president, Ma Ying-jeou (on the left with a corny "fist-pump" gesture), was running for a second term.

And what are the merits? what are the issues? In a nutshell there are two parties: the KMT and the DPP. The former are the scions of CKS and consider themselves "Chinese" (more on that in a bit) and the latter are Taiwanese nationalists who advocate independence for the island. On the political spectrum, as far as I can gather, the DPP are mildly to the left, whilst the KMT lean more to the right. But that is merely incidental, as there is only one issue that is of any import and that dominates Taiwanese politics: the relationship with China.

This stems from history. The KMT ruled mainland China until they were kicked out by the Communists in 1949, although they still claimed to be the legitimate rulers of the mainland and even occupied China's seat at the United Nations until 1971 before it was booted out in favour of the Communists by the General Assembly. And even to this day the official name of Taiwan is actually the Republic of China, as opposed to the Peoples Republic of China.* Therefore both the Communists and KMT regard Taiwan and China as being part of the same country and lay claim to the other, which funnily enough, paved the way for the 1992 Consensus (that there is only One China, though it is not defined, so each side interprets it according to their own, very different, definitions) whereby the two sides have begun to talk to each other: Nevertheless to all intents and purposes Taiwan is an independent country no matter which way you look at it, except from the purely pedantic. But of course a declaration of independence would draw the immediate wrath of China upon it and precipitate ... well no one really knows, as the two sides are now very closely linked economically. So the current stalemate exists as an uneasy status quo where the two sides agree to disagree over politics, but hey, let's ignore that and make some money.

Strangely enough, under the constitution of the Republic of China Taiwan still claims sovereignty over a large chunk of land, that not only includes mainland China, but also Mongolia, significant chunks of Russia, India and Tajikistan as well as random bits of Pakistan, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Japan as shown by the map below.

Map showing the areas still officially claimed by Taiwan as the Republic of China (courtesy of Wikipedia). I'm sure the Mongolians especially would have something to say about that.

The China Issue dominates all political discourse and splits the country quite evenly. The northern, richer half of the country, where most of the recent Chinese immigrants reside, leans strongly towards the KMT, whereas the southern half swings towards the DPP. Younger people are also more likely to favour the separatist agenda and feel a greater Taiwanese identity. Currently the balance favours the KMT, who won the election with 52% of the vote, against the DPP's 46%, though it seems as if DPP allegiance is increasing. But at least both China and the USA breathed a sigh of relief when the KMT won as neither really wants to precipitate a showdown over independence as it would eventually lead to someone having to cede after the mountain of heady rhetoric that has already accumulated. Just the threat from China is a strong factor and swayed many who would otherwise be sympathetic to the DPP's policies to vote KMT instead. Nevertheless I feel it is more a question of when, rather than if, the Gordian Knot of natinonalism rises to the fore and will somehow have to be dealt with.

Whatever the policies, and who won on the day, it has simply been enjoyable to watch democracy in action, especially in a part of the world where there is precious little of it. People are passionate about the process and go about expressing their party affiliations with gusto: I witnessed a procession in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second city, that closed down traffic on one of its main arteries and involved a riot of vehicles, balloons and sizeable quantities of fireworks whizzing over the heads of the marchers. It is also extremely good-natured as I neither saw nor heard of any clashes between the two sides, and even the polling day itself passed off in an orderly fashion and an impressively high turnout of around 75%. Everything was very smooth and efficient: polling lasted until 4pm, the counting until a little after 8pm by which the results were officially confirmed, people got to bed at a reasonable time, and the next day most of the posters had already been taken down and disposed of as Taiwan digested its new reality and went back to everyday life.

*I find it funny how there is an inverse correlation between the sound of a country's name and the level of autocracy exercised in it. During the Cold War, Communist East Germany was called the Democratic Republic of Germany, which confused the young me as I couldn't understand where the democracy featured, and similarly Poland during the Communist era was the People's Republic of Poland. Whereas the Scandinavian bastions of freedom, liberalism and democracy of Sweden, Denmark and Norway are all officially kingdoms, which harks of medieval absolutism. It is amusing then that North Korea, perhaps the most autocratic country in the world, feels that a simple "Democratic" or "People's" is not enough and has appended both to its name so that it is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. I'm sure the irony isn't lost on its inhabitants.

No comments: