Taiwan presidential election to affect cross-strait political legacies

By Peh Shing Huei, The Straits Times/Asia News Network

TAIPEI — Chinese President Hu Jintao is unlikely to have an early night on Saturday. As results from Taiwan’s presidential election stream in, he will be closely watching the verdict of the island’s 18 million voters, knowing full well its impact could reverberate across the Taiwan Strait to Beijing. The effect goes beyond the future of cross-strait relations. It could even affect the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership handover later this year and, with it, the legacy of Hu. The key lies in the uniqueness of 2012. For the first time since Taiwan introduced direct presidential elections in 1996, both sides of the Taiwan Strait will witness top leadership changes this year. In October, the CCP will hold its 18th Party Congress and unveil a new leadership line-up. Seven of the nine members in the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s most powerful body, are likely to retire, including Hu. And like it or not, say analysts, the confluence of the CCP congress and Taiwan presidential election will create ripple effects that cannot be ignored. In particular, the fortunes of the two incumbent leaders — Hu and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou — are interlocked. “A Ma win will be good for Hu because he has been leading cross-strait policies in the past few years,” said Beijing-based observer Li Fan, who is in Taiwan to study the election. He heads the World and China Institute, a private think tank.

Hu chairs the Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs in the CCP’s Central Committee, an inner group which takes charge of mainland China’s cross-strait affairs. Its strategy has been marked by a major rapprochement during Ma’s first four-year term, with 16 agreements signed and a six-decade ban on direct air, sea and postal links lifted. The landmark economic cooperation framework agreement trade deal was also inked between Beijing and Taipei. This opened the way for Taiwan to reach an investment pact with Japan, its second-biggest trading partner last September, and Taipei is now in talks with Singapore, New Zealand, India and Indonesia.