Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of Taiwan's main opposition Democratic Progressive Party, officially announced on Wednesday she would run in the "presidential" election next year. While the island could be on track for its first ever female leader, Tsai herself will have a major challenge to overcome, namely her "pro-independence" party's notorious image as a spoiler of cross-Straits relations.
Actually the 58-year-old party leader has already suffered defeat, as she lost to current Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang party in 2012. One of the main reasons for her defeat was the much-flawed cross-Straits policy of the DPP. If Tsai wants to win voters' confidence this time, she will have to convince them she has heeded the lesson of that defeat.
Although Tsai and her party may hope to carry on the momentum gained in defeating the ruling KMT in local city and county head elections in November last year, it is a totally different story when it comes to the island's leadership election. While local elections focus mainly on specific issues such as employment, housing and environment protection, voters will judge the "presidential" candidates through their capability to improve public welfare and maintain stability.
These, however, cannot be achieved without closer cross-Straits relations: The DPP should know this by now.
Between 2000 and 2008, when the former DPP chairman Chen Shui-bian, a staunch supporter of "Taiwan independence", was in power, cross-Straits ties were characterized by lingering tensions, which in turn led to the island's worst economic performance in decades. As a result, growing voter concern over the DPP's inability to secure better ties with the mainland helped the Kuomintang return to power in 2008, and was a key reason for Tsai losing to Ma in the 2012 election.
The same day as Tsai announced her bid, the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing, the mainland's top body in charge of cross-Straits relations, urged the DPP to heed the lessons of the last time it was in power and not to push for "independence". Ma Xiaoguang, the spokesman of the Taiwan Affairs Office, said if the DPP upholds its "pro-independence" stance, then it will damage cross-Straits relations. "This is not a new talking point, this is what happened between 2000 and 2008. One need not look far for a lesson," Ma told a regular news conference.
This may be like water off a duck's back to the DPP, but it is the underlying truth of cross-Straits ties. Since Ma took power in 2008, economic integration and personnel exchanges have grown closer than ever through a series of landmark economic deals between the two sides. There is no room for the island to back away from the mainland's economic gravity without hurting its growth, and any "splittist push" would only mean a freeze in the warming ties.
It remains to be seen whether Tsai has the willingness or courage to adjust her party's "pro-independence" stance. But one thing is for sure, her second shot at being the island's leader hinges largely on her wisdom in addressing cross-Straits relations.
The author is a senior writer with China Daily. firstname.lastname@example.org