It does not get the attention that elections in the United States, Russia or France enjoy, but next month's presidential elections in Taiwan are being anxiously watched in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo.
The polls predict a tight race between incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist party (KMT) and the leading opposition candidate, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). James Soong, who was expelled from the KMT and created the People First Party (PFP) will be the also-ran but also a possible spoiler, particularly if he takes votes from president Ma.
Ma came to power with a policy of restoring calm between Taiwan and China, a calm threatened by his DPP predecessor Chen Shui-bian who threatened to declare independence and supported a two China policy under which there would be two independent Chinas – Beijing and Taipei rather than the unification of Taiwan with China.
In the current campaign Ma has touted a policy of three noes – no to independence that would anger China, no to unification with China and no use of force. Tsai promises a correct policy towards China that would avoid confrontation and at the same time consolidate relations with other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
Mainland China has tried to avoid backing Ma in too clumsy a fashion although a Chinese official told visiting dignitaries from Taiwan that Ma had to be helped despite his personality that resembled a clear stream without fish. The opposition gleefully brought this exchange to the public's attention to show that Ma was China's stalking horse and what those in Beijing really thought of him. Ma's campaign was reduced to disavowing any Chinese assistance as well as attempts by the opposition to turn it into an issue.
The election is also being fought on economic grounds with the DPP reminding the voters that Ma had promised them a "6-3-3" policy representing a growth in GDP to 6%, an unemployment rate lower than 3% and a per capita income of $30,000.
While the economy has achieved progress, it has not met these yardsticks and the urban north of the island has done much better than the agricultural South.
One interesting turnabout has been the attitude of the American administration. While the United States may be in retreat in other parts of the globe, Barack Obama parades himself as America's first Pacific president. U.S. diplomacy has been rallying various states in the Pacific to oppose China's drive for hegemony in the region.
Therefore if previous administrations were worried about the Democratic Progressive Party as a loose cannon that by a unilateral Declaration of Independence could give rise to a conflagration across the China Straits, the Obama administration now appears to be more concerned about the chumminess between the Chinese Nationalist Party and Beijing.
An interesting sidelight of the elections is that it has provided sustenance for democracy advocates in mainland China. Chinese bloggers report a sense of pride as well as a civil rights lesson after following the campaign and particularly the debate between the candidates.
They have also learned that many in Taiwan oppose unification with China.