Global Politics

Taiwan re-elects China-friendly leader

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Ma Ying-jeou, seen here waving to supporters during a visit to UC Berkeley in March 2006. (Photo by Jiang via Wikimedia Commons.)

The president of Taiwan is well-spoken and well-educated. He studied law at Harvard and came to office with a large mandate and high hopes he’d turn things around.

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But support has slipped, and complaints have been grown about how he hasn’t done enough to help the economy in general, and ordinary people in particular. Sounds a bit like President Barack Obama.

Taiwan’s incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou won re-election today, despite a race that for a while was too close to call. President Ma earned 51.6 percent of the votes cast, compared to 45.6 percent for Tsai Ing-wen of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party. A third party candidate took the balance.

Ma defended his record this week.

“I have actually accomplished a lot in the last four years," he said, citing reduced tensions with China, including direct flights, shipping and postal services between the two countries. He also haa signed new trade agreements, created jobs, lowered inflation, boosted economic growth and worked to clean up corruption, he said. He'd like another term.

“In the first four years, I worked to reorient Taiwan back on the right track,” he said. “I think I have largely accomplished what I set out to do.”

It seems many Taiwanese think differently. The challenger, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party or DPP, had almost as much support as Ma, the incumbent.

Tsai’s spokeswoman, Hsiao Bi-Khim said it’s about the economy.

“We have been critical of the way that benefits have not been adequately distributed in our society over the past few years,” Hsiao said. “For example, we have experienced a GDP growth rate. However, we believe that the wealth created, the growth created, is concentrated only among a few select businesses or interest groups.”

Alice Chen, an American citizen who also have Taiwanese citizenship and lives in Seattle, said both Ma and Obama need more time to prove they can do what they said they would.

“I think even four years is not enough,” she said.

Chen will be voting in two presidential elections this year.

“Obama’s first term, I didn’t vote for him. I voted for more experienced, McCain,” Chen said. “But since Obama’s point is take care of everyone, everyone should have health insurance, he tried. Then I realized, I have to support him, because I like his policy.”

Same with Ma, she said. Her brother, Keenan Chang, who lives in Taiwan, strongly agrees.

“After Ma Ying-jeou took power, we don’t worry about a war with China. We don’t want war, we want peace,” Chang said.

He said Taiwan’s last president, Chen Shui-bian, from the DPP, played an unnecessary and dangerous game of brinksmanship with China, which hurt Taiwan’s economy. He worries about what another DPP president might do.

Many DPP supporters worry that President Ma may give China too much, and erode Taiwan’s autonomy.

But Ma's at least drawing interest among traditionally DPP supporters — if not exactly support.

“Before, I never attend the KMT rally,” said the man, referring to Ma’s party. “So I want to see how many people, and what are the elements.”

He planned to also attend a rally for his preferred candidate — Tsai Ing-wen. He said he'd hoped for a woman president.

“I think a woman is better,” he said.

He said Ma is too beholden to elites and special interests, though he gives Ma credit for working out a more constructive relationship with China.

At the rally, a packed crowd gave Ma credit for that and more.

“I have confidence in Ma. He’s been doing very well over the last four years, and he’s got a big horizon,” said Karen Zuo, another Taiwanese-American who’s returned to vote.

Zuo’s father was in Chiang Kai-shek’s army, and went with him to Taiwan in 1949.

Taiwan has lived practically its entire existence under the threat of a conflict with China, which insists Taiwan eventually must become part of the mainland nation from which it succeeded. The past four years have been different.

China hasn't changed its demand, but tensions have been muted. So, in this election, voters are thinking more about domestic issues, and about Taiwan’s future as Taiwan.

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