CHINA and America can breathe a sigh of relief. A closely fought presidential election in Taiwan has delivered a second four-year term to the China-friendly incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou. China had feared that his opponent, Tsai Ing-wen, would try to steer the island closer to formal independence. America professed neutrality, but clearly did not want to see tensions rise in the Taiwan Strait. To officials in Washington as well as Beijing, Mr Ma looked the less likely of the two to stir up trouble.
Mr Ma’s party, the Kuomintang (KMT), has also retained its control of the legislature. In parliamentary polls, held at the same time as the presidential ones, the KMT won 64 of the legislature’s 113 seats. Ms Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won 40. Mr Ma’s fortunes were boosted by the unexpectedly poor performance of a third candidate, James Soong of the People First Party. Mr Soong’s decision in November to join the race prompted fears in the KMT that it would lose some of its supporters to him. (His party split from the KMT in 2000.) “Jiu jiu jiu”, urged large characters on one election van in Taipei this week, meaning “Save, save Jeou”. In the end, Mr Soong took less than 3% of the vote. Mr Ma got nearly 52%, against less than 46% for Ms Tsai.
But the elections were not entirely good news for Mr Ma. In 2008 he won with 58% of the vote and his party secured 81 seats in the legislature. His popularity has been dented by the battering of the island’s export-dependent economy by the global slowdown. Many Taiwanese complain of a growing gap between rich and poor and increasingly unaffordable housing prices. Ms Tsai made considerable progress in restoring the unity and confidence of her party. The DPP had been shaken badly by corruption scandals surrounding its former leader, Chen Shui-bian, who was president from 2000 to 2008. (Mr Chen is now serving a 20-year sentence for corruption.) After her defeat today, Ms Tsai announced her resignation as the DPP’s chairwoman. But her party has shown that it is back as a powerful contender.
There will now be much bickering in the DPP over whether Ms Tsai could have done better. Some in her party will ask whether she should have signalled acceptance of what the KMT and China call the “1992 consensus”: an agreement they say was reached between the two sides to accept the idea of “one China”—and to disagree about what it means. In the build-up to the polls, many business leaders publicly expressed support for this consensus, implying support for the KMT’s way of handling ties with China. To the DPP, anything even hinting at the notion of one China of which Taiwan is part is anathema. China on the other hand insists that the 1992 consensus must be the basis for any cross-strait agreements. It attacked Ms Tsai’s calls for an ill-defined “Taiwan consensus” to replace it.
China will be especially relieved not to have to grapple with new cross-strait semantics at a time when it is preoccupied with its own (democracy-free) leadership changes later this year. Even if Ms Tsai had won, many analysts believe, China would have been restrained in its response, fearing that an escalation with Taiwan might exacerbate political divisions and social tensions at home. China’s president, Hu Jintao, will be stepping down as part of the leadership shuffle. He must be glad to know that the DPP’s next chance at the presidency of Taiwan will not come till long after his departure.