The year 2012 is chock-full of important presidential elections: the United States, France and Russia to name a few. China will see a changing of the guard and get a new president without elections in that same year.
Therefore, the January presidential elections in Taiwan might seem unimportant in comparison. However since Taiwan has a competitive two-party system and given the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue for China, the upcoming elections will attract interest.
Since the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), Taiwan has been ruled by the Kuomintang Party (KMT) that ruled mainland China from 1928 until the Communist victory. The leaders and supporters of the Taiwan party were mainly refugees from mainland China.
Although a bitter rivalry existed between the Communists and the Kuomintang, on one thing they did agree: There was but a single China and Taiwan was part of it.
The Kuomintang monopoly on power was broken in the 1990s by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Its original support base was provided by Taiwan natives who had lost contact with China after Japan ruled the island following the 19th century Sino-Japanese war. This party is in favor of a two-China policy and a declaration of independence for the island.
When the DPP, ruled China threatened military action if a unilateral declaration of independence was made. The United States sought a status quo under which China would refrain from the use of military force while Taiwan would respect the status quo.
In the 2008 presidential elections the KMT, under Ma Ying-jeou. Ma as president stressed improved cross-border ties with China, expanded trade and investment. While this benefited Taiwan economically, the fruits of economic prosperity did not reach many of Taiwan's citizens and instead produced a widening income disparity. Many observers believe that the dispute over the policy towards China may take a backseat in this election amidst a greater concentration on social issues.
The Nationalists have re-nominated Ma while the DPP has nominated the first woman to run for presidency. She is Tsai Ing-wen, who holds a doctorate in law from the London School of Economics, and is a former academic who joined the DPP only 7 years ago. She was the victor in a random telephone poll that the DPP used to pick its nominee.
China reacted to the event on a relatively low key, but warned the DPP that it brooked trouble if it reasserted Taiwan claims for independence. Yang Yi spokesman for the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office warned that an independence policy "under whatever kind of guise will hinder the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and impact on the stability of the cross-Strait situation,"the Chinese press also indicated its preference for Ma by stating that business leaders preferred a continuation of Ma's pro--mainland economic policy that had helped Taiwan grow and felt that a DPP victory would introduce uncertainty.
Tsai has so far soft-pedaled the China issue. She made her mark on the party by leading the drafting of a 10 year master plan that tackled issues such as the aging population, the environment as well as policy towards the mainland. Reacting to events in Japan Tsai also called for a phase-out of nuclear power during the primaries.
The 61-year-old Ma, who is also a former academic, defended the results of his policy towards China. He claims that it had improved Taiwan's international recognition as the number of countries granting Taiwan visa-free entry rose from 53 to 113 and Taiwan had been admitted to the World Health Assembly: "It’s clear which administration has defended Taiwan’s sovereignty and protected the nation’s dignity."