With all the votes tallied, President Tsai Ing-wen has been re-elected president of Taiwan. By a significant margin of 18.5% or 2.65 million votes, the people in the only liberal democracy in the Chinese-speaking world handed her and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) another four years as the president and party with a majority control of the Legislative Yuan, respectively.
Indeed, Tsai received 57.1% of the total votes, whereas her primary challenger, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, received only 38.6%. While Tsai’s victory is resounding, the path here has been far from smooth or guaranteed. From a traumatizing defeat for her party in the November 2018 local elections that was interpreted by observers as a referendum on her personally, to dealing with an unprecedented contested primary for an incumbent president, she emerged as the favorite candidate to win the 2020 presidential election — and succeeded.
With the benefit of hindsight, this article will seek to explain what factors may have contributed to her electoral success and the implications of the results. There are three issues that probably contributed to the electoral outcome:
- sovereignty as a focal point of the election;
- a split opposition coalition;
- the youths turned out to vote.
There are three likely implications of the election results that bear watching as well:
- Beijing’s hardline response;
- Tsai/DPP’s weaker political capital and the opposition’s troubling orientation;
- the necessity of greater international support.
Three Factors Contributing to Election Results
Economic performance and sovereignty have long been defining issues in Taiwan’s general elections, and the pendulum of public opinion often swings back and forth between these two with each election. What was different this time around appeared to be a relatively well-performing economy and a strong swing in public sentiment towards the importance of sovereignty.
The latter change in sentiment is likely due to the growing awareness among the Taiwanese public of the threats posed by China to the country’s sovereignty and the people’s way of life through the malign influence operations — both at home and abroad — of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Whether this swing is temporary or more permanent remains to be seen.
A clear manifestation of this threat came from General Secretary Xi Jinping’s hardline speech on the 40th anniversary of China’s Message to the Taiwan Compatriots. In it, Xi intensified Beijing’s pressure campaign against Taiwan, its hardline response to the ongoing Hong Kong crisis, and its suppression of people’s rights there under “One Country, Two Systems” — which is the People’s Republic of China’s formula for unification with Taiwan.
A split within the opposition party is another factor that contributed to the election outcome. In the very beginning, from the political insurgency represented by Han Kuo-yu’s unlikely but decisive victory on the Kuomintang ticket in Kaohsiung — which came with little to no help from the party establishment — to Han besting the most seasoned and experienced politicians of the KMT, his campaign has furthered a schism within the party and with the establishment. Likewise, his campaign led to further division with the anti-establishment factions that emerged during, and deepened in the aftermath of, the 2016 general elections, pointing to a malaise ailing the party.
The KMT was left with an energetic fringe base represented by Hung Hsiu-chu and Han Kuo-yu, and seemingly without a viable political leader that could unite the party after Ma Ying-jeou. Eric Chu’s 11th-hour Hail Mary in the 2016 presidential elections was a failed attempt to wrestle control of the party’s immediate future. The results of the most recent elections show that the KMT is still struggling with this critical issue of the lack of leadership.
Finally, 74.9% of eligible voters participated in the 2020 elections — this is 7% higher than in the 2016 elections. While a lot of ink has been spilled already about the generational differences in Taiwan’s politics, these elections may serve to solidify these political allegiances. Indeed, older generations tend to favor the KMT, whereas younger voters are generally supportive of President Tsai. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the youths turned out to vote in the 2020 elections. This will represent a significant voter base and important voting bloc in future elections that both parties will need to pay close attention to.
The first implication of the January 11 election is Beijing’s probable hardline response. While only time will tell how Beijing will actually respond, most indicators point to the CCP ratcheting up its multifaceted pressure campaign against Taiwan.
This will come in the form of ramped-up efforts to poach Taiwan’s 15 remaining diplomatic partners, and a continuation, if not expansion, of its military activities around Taiwan. Also, it will certainly continue its political warfare activities, to include economic measures and a campaign of subversion against Taiwan’s democracy. These activities are not only directed at Taiwan and affect the security of Taiwan, but also neighboring countries like Japan and Southeast Asia, as well as the United States.
The second implication is that, somewhat counter-intuitively, Tsai Ing-wen will emerge from this victory weaker than when she entered office for her first administration. Tsai spent a lot of her political capital in the first administration, struggling to push through multiple highly controversial domestic economic and political reforms, such as transitional justice, same-sex marriage, pension, labor, and judicial reforms, among other measures. These issues have, in no small part, contributed to her stagnating approval ratings leading up to the November 2018 local elections.
She also faced significant criticism for not standing up to Beijing enough from deep green elements within her own party. While the record-breaking number of popular votes that she received does point to a renewed mandate, some of these issues have not gone away — although they were superseded by other events, such as the Hong Kong protests and Beijing’s hardline stance against Taiwan.
A consequence of her political weakness will be the need and expectation to compromise more politically with factions within her own party, but also with the other political parties that now make up the Legislative Yuan.
While Tsai’s victory may not be a surprise to many observers, the DPP maintaining its majority — albeit a slimmer one — should come as one. It is worth noting here that, in terms of party votes, the DPP received roughly around the same number of votes as the KMT (4.8M to 4.7M; or 33.9% to 33.3%), with the Taiwan’s People’s Party garnering 11.2%, and the New Power Party, 7.7%. But the DPP did lose 7 seats, dropping from 68 to 61. While one could argue that it could have been worse, and perhaps it would have been had the KMT not committed several own goals, it was still a loss of seats for the DPP.
This result could be interpreted as less a rejection of the KMT and more of the party’s presidential candidate. That being said, the KMT only gained three extra seats, from 35 to 38 anticipated, and there were a number of very close races that should arguably not have been that close.
Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) won 5 seats, and while it is in neither coalition (as the New Power Party is with the DPP, or the People First Party with the KMT), it is likely to play its position as a truly independent third party that could play a disruptive role in the Legislative Yuan.
The third implication will be determined by the response from the United States, Japan, and other like-minded partners. In light of the aforementioned two factors, Taipei’s ties with Washington and Tokyo are going to be even more crucial over the next four years than in the past four years.
General Secretary Xi Jinping has specifically tasked the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to complete military reform and modernization by 2035 and to become a world-class military by 2050. The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford stated, “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation (United States) by about 2025.” If the chairman of the most powerful military is worried about the threats posed by China, then it does not require a stretch of the imagination to estimate how many times this threat is multiplied to smaller countries in its immediate periphery like Taiwan – and Japan as well.
While the results of the elections are perhaps not a surprise for many observers, the results are no less significant. The ball is now in China’s court. Will it change course from its destabilizing efforts to unilaterally alter the status quo, and instead contribute to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait?
If Beijing continues to eschew genuinely engaging Tsai, it will be up to the United States, Japan, and other like-minded partners to counter-balance Beijing’s assertive and coercive behaviors, since it does not stop with Taiwan. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan defense treaty. As Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense David Helvey stated at a January 7, 2020, Hudson Institute forum in Washington, DC, “peace and security in the Taiwan Strait have been a longstanding ‘common strategic objective’” for the U.S.-Japan alliance and defense cooperation. The next four years will be a critical period for ensuring that the U.S.-Japan alliance can respond to future contingencies in the region.
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Author: Russell Hsiao
Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and an adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum. The views expressed in this article are his own.