TAIPEI: Unlike Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto or Sheikh Hasina, the victorious candidate in the 2016 Presidential elections in Taiwan was not born into a political family. Tsai Ing-wen is, therefore, going to be the first non-dynast lady President (or Prime Minister) in Asia, if Tansu Çiller is excluded on the grounds that EU prejudices against the Muslim-majority country notwithstanding, Turkey is European. She is also the first female Head of State (and government) in any Sinic country. Some within the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) may bridle at this, but the reality is that Taiwan is very much a part of the Sinic world. Indeed, a case could be made that the island is even more “Chinese” in its culture than the nearby Peoples Republic of China, ever since the Cultural Revolution and other vicissitudes caused by Mao Zedong demolished much of existing traditions within the country. In Taiwan, there is a four-month hiatus between the election and the takeover of power by a new government, a length of time unusual in its length, so DPP Chairperson Tsai will take over as President Tsai only on 20 May. The four-year term is unlikely to be anything other than a choppy ride.
Economic growth has been flagging, causing a constriction of salaries and a lack of adequately paying jobs, especially for the young. There are predictions that President Xi Jinping will respond to the Taiwanese people’s turfing out of Beijing’s favourite, the KMT, in favour of its bête noire, the DPP, not simply in the Presidential polls but in the country’s legislature as well. However, such a churlish reaction is unlikely. Xi will remember the hostile reception Beijing gave to the DPP’s first Head of State, Chen Sui-bian, when he tried, hesitantly, to extend an olive sprig to the Chinese leadership, only to be rebuffed. The experience ensured that Chen reversed his fledgling efforts at conciliation throughout the rest of his term, goading China whenever and wherever he could in a manner reciprocated with compound interest by the other side.
In a move which must have delighted the Chinese Communist Party, incoming President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT put ex-President Chen in jail on corruption charges soon after taking office, and there the former President remained till recently, when he was released into house arrest on grounds of ill-health. Radicals within the DPP are looking forward to repaying the compliment in the case of President Ma, by bringing up issues relating to his term in office as Mayor of Taipei, as well as a case involving the interception of telephone conversations of members of the legislature, although hopefully such a precedent — of putting a former Head of State belonging to a different party in jail once his or her successor takes over — will not be followed by incoming President Tsai. Certainly there are those in the KMT, and quite possibly some in President Ma’s entourage as well, who merit prosecution and punishment, but it is doubtful that the current President of Taiwan is among them, vindictive though the jailing of his predecessor was.
More than domestic politics, what will worry incoming President Tsai will be the state of play between Taipei and Beijing. The new Head of State is very different from her DPP predecessor Chen Shui-bian, and in particular has way more experience in dealing with issues relating to China. On the other side of the Taiwan straits, President Xi Jinping is unlikely to adopt the tough approach of Jiang Zemin, who openly threatened Taipei with a show of military firepower. That ensured the defeat of the pro-China KMT in the subsequent elections.
Like others across the globe, the Taiwanese do not like being bullied, and should China react to the Tsai victory by seeking to cut back on economic and other links (for example, by forcing down the number of tourists visiting the island), it would hurt both economies as well as erode the goodwill in Taiwan for China, the country from where the overwhelming majority of the people of Taiwan migrated from, over the past two centuries. However, Xi is facing a challenge in his efforts to downsize the immense power of the “princeling” class over state enterprises, and is aware that Taiwanese businesses are core to the prosperity of the PRC, hence it is unlikely that Xi and Tsai will have the same tension-filled relationship as did Jiang and Chen.
During the eight years that Ma Ying-jeou has been at the helm in Taipei, the relationship between Taiwan and China has reached a level unprecedented in recent history. The odds for stability are therefore higher than for tensions to boil over. And importantly for India, this is a country that Tsai Ing-wen has often referred to, and which she admires as the world’s most populous democracy. Come 20 May, it is a certainty that linkages between India and Taiwan will grow at an accelerated pace. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, the image of India in East Asia has risen to the status of a Great Power, and Delhi is now firmly in the radar of all the capitals in the region.