IT promises to be a year of holding elections trepidatiously. Already an edgy apprehension pervades the coming polls in France and the United States, where both incumbents and contenders leave much to be desired.
Around here, there is growing unease about what will unfold in the impending Malaysian general election, especially after a verdict in the sodomy trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is handed down today.
There are also April’s much anticipated by-elections in Myanmar, which will involve opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and may well mark the first step in her eventual rise to become president of that country.
However, strange as it may seem, none of these portentous events is likely to be as significant as the election that will take place in Taiwan on Saturday.
The island, which is one of my favourite places to visit, has developed a vibrant electoral system that is open and democratic and regarded as a template for future political empowerment in China and Vietnam.
Its coming polls will have a potential global impact because they pit a party that unequivocally favours closer ties with China against another party that espouses a much more independent future.
If the latter wins, Beijing’s chagrin is likely to cause it to become very testy, not only towards the recalcitrant isle, but also towards nations like Japan, Singapore, Vietnam and the US that have strong ties with Taiwan.
The testiness may be manifested in Beijing’s increasingly aggressive sovereignty claims to the entire South China Sea, against the rival claims of several countries in this region, including Taiwan.
Is there any chance of all this happening? Well, yes, a very good one, as is clear from even a cursory evaluation of the two main candidates.
The incumbent Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, led by President Ma Ying-jeou, 61, has been implementing policies to foster a warmer rapport with Beijing since taking office in May, 2008.
As a result, relations across the Taiwan Strait have improved dramatically and 16 mutually beneficial agreements have been signed that have helped annual cross-strait trade to soar above US$100 billion.
Going up against President Ma and the Nationalists is the Democratic Progressive Party led by Taiwan’s first female political leader, Tsai Ing-wen, 55, a former law professor.
Tsai, a single woman who declines to say whether she is straight or gay, is far more cultured, pragmatic and clean than her party’s former leader, the volatile and corrupt ex-President Chen Shui-bian.
Photogenic, articulate and intelligent, both Ma and Tsai are multi-linguists with post-graduate degrees from American Ivy League universities.
But there the similarities end. Ma wants to continue his incremental romance with Beijing, while Tsai wants to press the reset button and accentuate Taiwan’s own unique identity.
As she told The New York Times last week: “We’d like to say we are a country, and we have a sovereignty of our own.”
That is anathema to China, which steadfastly insists that Taiwan is one of its provinces and it will not countenance any talk of the island becoming a sovereign state.
Likewise, President Ma recoils at such independentist talk and when dealing with the mainland always calls it an “area-to-area relationship”.
If he wins a second term, Ma may be able to ensure continued stability in cross-strait ties; but on the other hand, Beijing may push him to accelerate moves for formal reunification and that would prove socially disruptive.
Conversely, while a victory for Tsai would upset Beijing, it appears that many Taiwanese, especially younger folks, view that as an acceptable, if risky, trade-off in order to assert their rightful identity.
Now, both President Ma and Madame Tsai are tied in the polls with about 45 per cent each, so there is an even chance that Tsai will prevail in Saturday’s bake-off.
If she does, then be prepared to watch the sparks start flying.