Common wisdom might suggest that the resounding victory of the mainland-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) and the crushing defeat of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in last weekend’s Taiwanese elections would improve cross-strait relations.

The KMT took 15 of the 22 city and county seats, up from just six previously, while the DPP’s share fell from 13 to just six – including Kaohsiung and Taichung, two of the most important cities in Taiwan, as well as its long-term strongholds. That might be interpreted as Taiwanese endorsement of KMT’s mainland policy and disapproval of DPP’s.

Beijing favours the KMT, which has sought closer economic relations with the mainland since a thaw between what were once enemies fighting a civil war. Cross-strait ties have taken a dive in the two years since DPP President Tsai Ing-wen came to office.

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The result seems to give Beijing a stronger position, but all the evidence suggests it had more to do with people’s livelihoods, not cross-strait relations.

Many analysts attributed the KMT’s success to its tactic of focusing on bread-and-butter issues rather than party politics and ideology.

Analysts also blamed the DPP’s election rout on its failure in domestic reform initiatives, from the island’s pension scheme to labour laws. Even KMT officials have admitted that its mainland-friendly policies and Beijing’s help promoting the party were to blame for its humiliating defeats in the 2014 and 2016 elections.

Most important of all, the polls showed the maturity of the island’s democracy, which might widen rather than narrow the political gap across the strait.

Taiwan’s transition to democracy began in 1987, when the KMT ended 38 years of martial law.

In 1988, Lee Teng-hui became the first native Taiwanese leader, breaking the mainland émigrés’ stranglehold on the island’s politics. Lee also oversaw Taiwan’s first full multi-party legislative elections in 1991–92 and the first direct presidential election in 1996. Taiwan’s competitive democratic system has allowed three peaceful transfers of power between rival parties since the 2000 elections.

In the just-finished polls, Taiwan once again witnessed smooth transfers in many localities, as the island’s political map underwent a dramatic shift from DPP to KMT.

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The polls also suggested people tended not to vote for colours – blue for KMT and green for DPP – as they had previously done, but instead focused on candidates’ strengths, qualities and personalities.

Both KMT mayor-in-waiting Han Kuo-yu and his Taichung counterpart Lu Hsiu-yen succeeded on their down-to-earth approaches and economy-focused platforms, not on any political slogans. As rank outsiders, they had deliberately steered clear of political issues, such as cross-strait ties, unification and independence. It is evident the polls do not represent endorsement or disapproval of cross-strait policies.

As the elections were seen as a key test for Tsai’s two-year-old administration, the DPP’s thrashing will undermine the embattled president’s bid to win re-election in 2020, which might also give rise to the hope of a possible political comeback for the KMT. But many analysts anticipate that an independent candidate will have a greater chance of winning. Nothing is evident about a synergy with Beijing’s policy.

The smooth elections marked the remarkable progress in Taiwan’s democratic development, as previous ones were tarnished by charges of rampant vote-buying, bribery, blackmail and violence. In two decades, Taiwan has become one of the most vibrant free democracies in Asia, joining the ranks of mature democracies in the liberal West. The island has also witnessed robust development in terms of protection for human rights and civil liberties, as it usually tops the rankings in Asia in this regard.

The polls have also put direct democracy to a real test, as they piloted an experiment with referendums on 10 critical issues of widespread public concerns. Voters exercised their power to decide divisive issues such as marriage equality. The island is now one of the most direct democracies in the world and a model in Asia. Taichung city in central Taiwan will host the 2019 global forum on modern direct democracy, highlighting the island’s success in promoting political participation.

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So, in fact, the political gap across the narrow Taiwan Strait has widened in recent years, largely due to the opposite political development on the two sides. While Taiwan has embraced a full-fledged free democracy, the mainland is reviving repressive Maoist policies. Taiwan has become vibrant evidence that Western-style free democracy can take root and work in Chinese or other Confucian societies.

The mainland should be moving away from authoritarian rule to realise its utmost goal of national reunification, as it needs to win the hearts and souls of the Taiwanese people to make such an accomplishment achievable.


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