Presidential Elections in Taiwan and the China Effect

In a few days, on January 16th, Taiwan will hold a direct general election for the office of president of the Republic of China (ROC). The vast majority of Taiwanese political pundits and observers from abroad fully expect the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen (pictured above) to win comfortably, a position supported by Tsai’s domination of opinion polls for months. So dominant has she been throughout this campaign in fact that the rival Kuomintang (KMT) party switched candidates only a couple of months ago, albeit after a series of ill-considered comments by their original choice, Hung Hsiu-chu. The situation reflects a complete turnaround from the apparent paths open to both parties since the election in 2008 of Ma Ying-jeou, the outgoing president. In 2008, Ma represented a vibrant future for the KMT after eight years of DPP president Chen Shui-bian; young, handsome and charismatic, Ma transitioned his popular mayoralty of Taiwanese capital Taipei into a compelling alternative to Chen’s increasingly scandal-riddled presidency. Eight years later Ma and his party are again unpopular with the electorate, and in particular face a struggle building fresh connections with young voters.
The Taiwanese are fans of the democratic process. Turnout for parliamentary and presidential elections has been extremely high since the first direct presidential election in 1996, with three quarters of the voting age population consistently coming out to vote. The process has been dominated from its inception, as so many other issues in Taiwan are, by the island’s relationship with Mainland China. In 1996, the communist government in Beijing fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in an attempt to dissuade Taiwanese voters from electing Lee Teng-hui, a man whose promotion of the idea of “Taiwanization” infuriated politicians in Beijing who maintain Taiwan is a renegade province and not distinguishable in any meaningful way from the mainland either culturally, socially or politically. Taiwanization amounted to some practical elements, such as the removal of restrictions on the Taiwanese language on radio and television, but ultimately signaled an ideological shift among people living on the island to begin talking about Taiwan as a distinct entity within Chinese experience. It was an extremely contentious position among Lee’s colleagues in the KMT, many of whom accepted elements of Taiwanization but remained steadfastly committed to the party’s traditional position that Taiwan hosted a national Chinese government in exile. This tension remains at the heart of Taiwanese politics and largely informs Tsai’s upcoming victory.
The KMT claims as its antecedence a number of organizations founded by Sun Yat-sen, widely regarded across the Taiwan Strait as the father of the modern Chinese nation; the party as a result sees itself as irrevocably linked to the declaration of the ROC on the 1st of January, 1912 and the decades of intermittent governance of China that followed. China historians refer to the period between the 1911 revolution that made the ROC possible and the Chinese Communist Party’s declaration of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 as the Republican Period, though in truth the KMT maintained coherent rule of the majority of Chinese territory for a relatively brief period from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s unifying “Northern Expedition” in 1927 until the Japanese invasion of the mainland in 1937. Soon after World War II the fragile alliance between the KMT and Mao Zedong’s communists formed to fight off the Japanese collapsed, and the ensuing civil war did not go well for Chiang and his followers. Taiwan provided an island refuge, the final stop in a series of retreats that ended with a recalcitrant Chiang utilizing martial law to position Taiwan as an entrenched front in the Cold War. In the decades that immediately followed 1949, Taiwan emerged as one of Asia’s “tiger economies” and a staunch ally of the western world in stark contrast to Mao’s China, which sought alternative paths to modernization that mostly resulted in tragedy for millions of Chinese.
Much has changed since the deaths of Chiang in 1975 and Mao in 1976. The Tangwai (“outside the party”) movement in Taiwan of the 1970s and 1980s grew into a more coherent political movement in favor of democratization of the island, leading ultimately to Lee’s direct election in 1996. This brought about a significant change in Taiwanese politics: a somewhat surprising victory for the DPP in 2000 saw a more assertive voice for Taiwanese independence take shape, with some DPP supporters now openly arguing not only for the promotion of cultural and ideological independence but for steps towards formal declarations of an independent state. Such a move would likely be disastrous; the complex geopolitics surrounding Taiwan rest on common assumptions of a status quo (the “One China” concept) held with varying degrees of enthusiasm in Beijing, Taiwan and Washington. We know that Beijing would consider a declaration of independence as grounds for military action. We cannot be entirely sure what position the United States would take despite its long-standing relationship with Taiwan.
By 2008, such rhetoric appeared to some Taiwanese voters not merely reckless but out of touch as China’s economic performance shifted from a position of increasing relevance to one of dominance. Ma Ying-jeou won the election handily largely on the back of a promise to resuscitate Taiwan’s previously formidable economy through continued positive cooperation across the Taiwan Strait. It is by this petard that Ma now finds himself hoisted; the expansion of economic ties between China and Taiwan has not brought the endless bounty of economic growth anticipated, with Taiwan’s GDP shrinking in the third quarter of 2015 for the first time in six years. Additionally, young Taiwanese are increasingly wary of China’s continued antipathy towards democracy and free speech under Xi Jinping: the “Sunflower Movement” occupied the Legislative Yuan building for three weeks in March and April of 2014 to protest against Taiwanese ratification of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, a protest ostensibly borne of anger over a lack of clarity regarding further agreements between Taipei and Beijing but sharing much in character with the “Umbrella Revolution” protests in Hong Kong that same year. It is in this context that the KMT’s original candidate for this election proved such a disaster, her public comments apparently an amplification of pro-China and pro-unification agenda that already hung heavy around Ma’s neck.
Frustration over Ma’s failure to deliver on promises of a revived economy and increasing belligerence in foreign policy promoted in Beijing is driving a wave of support for Tsai and the DPP. Tsai’s probable victory is unlikely to bring about an immediate crisis in East Asia; she has been careful to maintain a moderate stance on her approach to governing Taiwan, focusing on issues of public faith in government rather than a push for independence. We are unlikely to see a Taiwanese declaration of independence in 2016, or in 2020 for that matter. Attempts by China to influence the election appear to remain limited to Xi Jinping’s meeting with Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore this past November, an historic moment but one that appears to have had little effect on Taiwanese voters. That meeting and the long, sometimes arduous handshake it entailed represented a lonely high point in a tough couple of years for Ma, whose skillful handling of the world’s press in a free-flowing press conference following the private meeting between the two men stood in stark contrast to a stage-managed effort by the Chinese which Xi chose not to attend. Chinese television went so far as to digitally block out the ROC flag pin Ma wears on his lapel. Somewhat lost in the discussion is the fact that Taiwan will once again hold a free and transparent general election putting in power a president and parliamentary legislators who will enjoy the mandate of a popular vote.  It is perhaps this fact, rather than the currently relatively remote possibility of an ill-considered declaration of formal independence by Taipei, that should concern Xi.
John Harney is Assistant Professor of Asian History at Centre College.

By |2016-01-03T16:45:44-05:00January 3rd, 2016|Asian Studies blog|