The January Legislative Yuan elections in Taiwan demonstrated that, for better or worse, the Chen Shui-bian era is over. The rout of Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party by the opposition Kuomintang sent a clear message that the people of Taiwan were utterly dissatisfied with the government’s performance over the past eight years and that they rejected the politics of ideology. Whomever they choose in the March presidential election, it is obvious that the people of Taiwan—while rejecting unification with the Mainland today, anxious to participate actively in the international community, and resentful of steps taken by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to thwart virtually every effort by Taiwan to do so—are far more concerned about securing their future well-being and de facto independence than about pushing “principled” stands on the island’s de jure status. The nightmare scenarios that Beijing has conjured up about how Chen might declare an emergency and enforce “Taiwan independence” to perpetuate himself in office have little relevance to Taiwan’s reality in 2008.
The hard-fought presidential campaign, following the course of many Taiwan political contests, is being conducted in a manner that might offend the Marquis of Queensberry. But Taiwan voters seem largely unimpressed and retain their focus on the issues. The critical question facing all the relevant players after a new Taiwan leader takes office in May will be whether the two sides of the Strait can seize the opportunity presented by the change in Taipei—whoever is elected—to lay a new foundation for the future. If for any reason the parties miss the moment, they might well set in concrete a competitive and even confrontational cross-Strait structure that will deepen existing tensions, complicate U.S.-PRC relations, and continue to threaten the well-being of all concerned.