Challenging Days Ahead for Taiwan’s Re-elected Leader

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Tsai Ing-wen’s election to a second term shows that Beijing’s uncompromising approach to Taiwan has backfired, while the polls signal a maturing of the island’s democratic political system, writes Yuen-ying Chan, veteran journalist and honorary professor at The University of Hong Kong. Going forward, Tsai will need to navigate a tricky path between hardliners in her pro-independence party and Beijing, which has shown no sign of moderating its policy towards the island.

Challenging Days Ahead for Taiwan’s Re-elected Leader

Tsai will need to navigate a tricky path between pro-independence DPP hardliners and Beijing (Credit: Mori / Office of the President)

Fresh from a landslide win in Taiwan’s January 11 presidential polls, incumbent Tsai Ing-wen proclaimed to the evening mega-rally that her re-election was a victory for democracy. She also challenged mainland China to change its policy towards Taiwan. In response, the crowd roared with approval at her punchlines and buzzwords – “democracy”, “peace” and “sovereignty”. The world should take notice that Taiwan deserves a place in world affairs, Tsai told her following. “All countries should consider Taiwan a partner, not an issue.”

But at times, Tsai was subdued, speaking like a schoolteacher rather than as a politician who had just scored a momentous triumph. It was as if she recognized fully the weight of the tasks ahead of her in confronting Beijing while fulfilling her promise of prosperity to her people.

To be sure, Tsai of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) made history by scoring a record 8.17 million votes, 57 percent of the historic 14-million turnout, beating her challenger Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT) by an 18-point margin. The DPP also won enough votes to maintain majority control of the legislature.

For the DPP, it was a huge reversal of fortunes after its bitter defeat in local elections less than two years ago. Just six months ago, Tsai was trailing badly in polls. The surprisingly wide vote margin is a vindication of the DPP’s three-prong campaign strategy: exploit the Hong Kong protests, use social media, and deploy a contingent of young campaigners to get first-time voters out to the polling stations.

All eyes on Beijing’s response

Now that the people of Taiwan have spoken, will Beijing heed their desire for respect and a voice in their future?

If Beijing is recalibrating its policy towards Taiwan, the authorities have not shown any sign of doing so. In a statement issued immediately after the election, Chinese state news agency Xinhua News accused Tsai and the DPP of using “dirty tactics such as cheating, repression and intimidation to get votes, fully exposing their selfish, greedy and evil nature.” The statement offered no details to support the accusations. Nor has the KMT, the losing party, charged the winning side with fraud or election irregularities.

Then on January 15, Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office, reiterated that Beijing will stick to the 1992 consensus and the “one country, two system” framework which holds that the one-China principle must serve as a basis for building cross-strait relations.

In all the post-election statements, Beijing has avoided directly addressing the Taiwan public. By insisting on a “nothing-has-changed” stance, based on a framework dating from 27 years go, Beijing would be forgoing an opportunity to engage a Taiwan public that is eager for change. It would also risk further alienating a new generation of young Taiwanese voters who have grown up since that approach was adopted in 1992.

The election results have sent a message that Beijing’s pressure tactics towards Taiwan in Tsai’s first term have backfired, resulting in shoring up support for the pro-independence forces inside the DDP and in Taiwan society. People on the streets in Taiwan readily recall a speech made by Chinese President Xi Jinping on January 2, 2019, when he warned that Beijing would not rule out the use of military force in its dealing with Taiwan. The turmoil in Hong Kong due to the massive street protests that have been marked by violence has further fanned anti-mainland sentiment and boosted support for Tsai and the DPP.

DPP undercurrents

In the face of mainland’s uncompromising position, Tsai will have to handle her second term with extreme caution and sensitivity. She will need to navigate a tricky path between pro-independence DPP hardliners and Beijing. She will also have to consolidate DPP’s position among the public. Even with her remarkable vote gain, there are signs that the party’s support is not solid.

First, the DPP won only one-third of the votes cast for the at-large seats in the legislature. The KMT took another one-third, while the rest went to much smaller parties of all political shades. The discrepancy between the tally for Tsai and that for the DPP shows that many of the ballots for the president were in fact anti-Han votes, not ones for the DPP.

Meanwhile, a third party has emerged. The Taiwan People’s Party, founded only five month ago, has become the third largest party with five legislative seats. Led by Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, the new party won a surprising 1.5 million votes (compared to 4.8 million and 4.7 million for the DPP and KMT, respectively). Many voters are seeking alternatives to the two leading parties.

Finally, even though the DPP won enough races to maintain control of the Legislative Yuan, it lost seven seats while the KMT gained three, another sign that voter support for the DPP is not without reservation.

A maturing democracy

Regardless of how Taiwan’s future plays out amid the interplay between China and the US, its democratic progress must be regarded as a heartening development. Democracy has become a strong card for Taiwan to play as it seeks to use its soft power to garner international support.

In her brief victory speech, which lasted only four minutes, Tsai invoked the words “democracy” or “democratic” 13 times. Taiwan has come a long way in its democratic transition since 1987, when martial law was lifted. The island held its first presidential election in 1996, which the KMT’s Lee Teng-hui won. Since then, Taiwan has held six elections for its chief executive.

The DPP first came to power in 2000 with the election of Taiwan native son Chen Shui-bian, who was succeeded by KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou in 2008. Ma won a second term in 2012 when he defeated Tsai in her first bid for the presidency. The 2020 election has delivered the third presidential election victory in Taiwan’s history to the DDP.

The island has seen more rocky times. In the 1990s, fistfights would regularly break out in the legislative chamber. In the 2004 election campaign, there was even an assassination attempt on candidate Chen. These days, voting for the candidate to take the helm in Taiwan has become routine. So have changes of administration and deliberations in the central and local legislatures.

In their post-election speeches, both presidential contenders, Tsai and Han, were gracious in acknowledging each other. The votes were counted at hundreds of polling stations, sprinkled among neighborhoods in cities and towns, in a speedy and transparent manner. The day after the election, the streets remained calm, with families enjoying strolls and Sunday reunions.

Taiwan is a maturing democracy. It could serve as a model for many countries whose elections have remained fraught with fraud, corruption and voter manipulation. While the nature of Taiwan as a political entity still hangs in the balance, as a polity and economy, it is demonstrating that it can contribute to growth and stability in the region.

In this New Year election, the Taiwan people have expressed their wishes.  It is now up to politicians in high places to respect their aspirations and work on long-term solutions.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Yuen-ying Chan

Yuen-ying Chan

Journalist, author and media consultant

Yuen-ying Chan is an award-winning journalist and media consultant. She served as professor and founding director (1998-2016) of The University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre. Earlier in her career, she spent 23 years in New York City covering immigration, campaign finance and US-China relations for the New York Daily News, NBC News and Chinese-language dailies. She is co-founder of the Environmental Reporting Collective, a global network of journalists in Asia and Africa, and is on the board of management of Digital Asia Hub.

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