The re-election of Tsai Ying-wen to the Presidency of Taiwan this last January 11 represents a rare shining moment in the Indo-Pacific region, as populist leaders ruling India and the Philippines preside over a deterioration of democracy in the region.
A steady hand at the helm of her country over the last four years, President Tsai ranks as one of the few leaders in world affairs who proved able to withstand adversity without resorting to demagogy. She also stands out as a shining light in contrast to the hapless leader of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, whose authority the government in Beijing continues to prop up despite mass discontent. Yet, apart from those who follow the developments in this nation of 23 million closely, few people have heard of her. This state of affair results from the campaign of the Chinese Communist Party, which seeks to silence the voice of Taiwan on the international stage. In Taiwan itself, the CCP has not spared its efforts to support the opponents of Tsai during the electoral campaign, hoping to sway Taiwanese citizens to accept its irredentist claims to control the island. The results of the election last Saturday have delivered a stinging rebuke to the ambitions of China’s president, Xi Jinping.
Taiwanese voters have demonstrated again to the world that they rule their own affairs.
President Tsai has received the support of 57 per cent of the electorate, a record number since the election of Lee Teng-hui in 1996, and a clear endorsement of her policies, in the context of a sustained campaign of disinformation directed at her and her party. Simultaneously with the contest for the Presidency, Taiwanese went to the polls to renew the legislature. The results of this important election have consolidated the triumph of President Tsai: her Democratic Progressive Party has won a majority of the seats. A semi-presidential system, Taiwan will have again a unified government that will be able to pass legislation for essential reforms in the economy. Most importantly, this victory confirms to the world that Taiwan rejects the idea of ‘One Country Two Systems’ proposed by Xi Jinping, which had been completely discredited by the month-long protests in Hong Kong triggered by a law proposal facilitating the extradition of Hong Kong residents to China. The Taiwanese have over recent years shown decreasing support for that claim, and for younger generations who identify almost exclusively as Taiwanese, it has become even less attractive.
Taiwanese voters have demonstrated again to the world that they rule their own affairs. Since 1996, when they freely elected for the first time their President, they have routinely changed the party in power, in the Presidential palace, the legislature, and in local governments. Public debates can be as acrimonious and vociferous as in any mature democracy, and the media unrelenting in speaking to power. Yet, most importantly, the losers in the electoral contests, as in Canada, do not have to fear reprisal, ostracism, or opprobrium. In her victory speech, President Tsai, as is expected in any mature democracy, thanked her opponents, who duly congratulated her. This civility stands out as a model of moderation and progress in the region and abroad.
Since the beginning of democratization, most Taiwanese voters have favoured one of two formations among a broad range of political parties. On every occasion, the loser has duly performed the role of a loyal opposition.
Why would Taiwan renounce its hard-won democracy to be a province of the People’s Republic of China? Taiwanese are aware of the continuous clampdown against non-violent human rights lawyers, the cultural genocide perpetrated by the mass internment of Uyghur in ‘re-education camps’, the renewal of religious persecutions, and the unyielding attitude of the authorities in Hong Kong. They have experienced in the four decades up to 1987 their own phase of political repression, and they have clearly moved away from that dark period.
Since the beginning of democratization, most Taiwanese voters have favoured one of two formations among a broad range of political parties. On every occasion, the loser has duly performed the role of a loyal opposition. Even if at times, some politician have not always acted in good faith, the electoral competition between parties has never degenerated into the zero-sum game in which the loser face persecution. The culture of purges, arrest of dissidents and critical journalists is alien to Taiwan for the last three decades at least. In other words, the population of Taiwan has demonstrated repeatedly that this nation is a sovereign polity, which exercises its self-determination in a decisive but orderly way within the rule of law.
As a society with its own government, where citizens express their views and air their disagreements peacefully, Taiwan should be part of the rarified club of liberal and progressive democracies. Yet, the latter have avoided recognizing its existence, for fear of antagonizing China. This policy has roots in the diplomacy of the Cold War when Western powers saw in China a counter-balance to the Soviet Union, and Taiwan was then an authoritarian regime that seemed destined to end up in the dustbin of history. The world has changed since then: and so have both China and Taiwan. The former is not a poor third world nation anymore and has clearly morphed into a global power. The latter is a democracy with as many people as Australia, is Canada’s fifth-largest trading partner in Asia, and has distinguished itself as the only country in the whole continent that has legalized same-sex marriage. As the Canadian government rethink its position in the region, the opportunity presents itself to stand by one of the few like-minded governments in that important part of the world.