An election for Taiwan’s future

By Hsing-yu Jessica Fang

March 11, 2020

On January 11, 2020, hundreds of thousands of supporters gathered at the Ketagalan Boulevard in Taipei to celebrate the reelection of President Tsai Ying-wen. Tsai prevailed with an historical 8.17 million votes. In a system that does not allow absentee voting, the turnout was nearly 75% – a significant rebound from the 66% turnout in 2016. Despite her landslide victory, Tsai’s road to reelection was anything but smooth. A year ago, her approval rating stood at 15%, her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) conclusively lost municipal elections and Tsai was compelled to resign as party chair. A year later, she swept 57% of the vote, securing a second term and a majority for the DDP in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s Congress. 

Beijing, ironically, played an important role in helping Tsai reverse her fortune.

“The impending doom of losing the country,” or 亡國感wangguogan, was one of the key themes of the DDP’s 2020 campaign. The fear refers to losing control over the sovereignty of Taiwan. On the second day of 2019, President Xi Jinping publicly reasserted Beijing’s right to unify Taiwan on the basis of “One Country, Two Systems” – the system currently applied to Hong Kong and Macau. Following Xi’s speech, President Tsai retorted that Taiwan was not part of China and would never accept “One Country, Two Systems.” Her retorts have only been deepened by the bloody protests that have rocked Hong Kong for months. In Taiwan, the situation in Hong Kong is generally interpreted as a failure of “One Country, Two Systems.” Such fears can be attributed to the 2018 municipal election victory of the Kuomintang (KMT), the opposition party which favors closer ties with Beijing, and the rise of KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu. Han is seen as a populist candidate able to appeal to voters with plain language and dramatic behavior. Policy-wise, he advocates for closer relations with China, and, during a trip to Hong Kong in March 2019, visited the Hong Kong Liaison Office, the local organ of the Chinese central government. The visit was widely deemed an endorsement of Xi’s proposal to unify Taiwan under “One Country, Two Systems,” prompting both fear and outrage among pro-independence voters in Taiwan. The so-called “iron Han fans,” the fervent supporters of Han, stoked these fears as they enthusiastically waved the blue and red flag of the Republic of China at his rallies. Han clearly had an ability to mobilize his supporters. By comparison, Tsai’s supporters, a majority of whom are younger voters, were seen as indifferent toward politics. Hence, the election would come down to turnout. President Tsai made “Go home and vote” (回家投票) the centerpiece of her campaign, encouraging people to return to their hometowns and cast their ballots. Such appeals, along with the protests in Hong Kong, worked in her favor, delivering the aforementioned record turnout.  

“People vote for status quo with pride in this election,” said Professor David Keegan, adjunct professor of China Studies at SAIS and leader of the SAIS 2020 Taiwan Election Study Trip. In response to developments in Taiwan and Beijing, in particular Xi’s handling of Cross-Strait and Hong Kong relations, “Taiwanese voters are saying that we are a different place from China, and we are Taiwanese, not Chinese.” 

The 2020 election also sent an alarming signal to the KMT, who, for years, has set eventual unification with China as the goal for Cross-Strait relations. This agenda is encountering increasing challenges, as the younger generations, dubbed “naturally independent” (天然獨), who grew up learning that Taiwan is separate from China, come of age. Going forward, the KMT faces a need for internal reform. They must find a new way to understand Taiwan’s relationship with China, because what used to be acceptable during President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration (2008 to 2016) is no longer acceptable, Professor Keegan said. But, in his view, before they tackle this problem, the first step for the KMT is to change its hierarchical party structure. If younger KMT politicians are given a chance, they can lead a new chapter in the Cross-Strait relationship.

Tsai’s victory is a relief to the “impending doom of losing the country.” However, there are still various challenges when it comes to Cross-Strait relations. In her victory speech, President Tsai proposed four foundations for Cross-Strait interaction: peace, equality, democracy and dialogue. It remains to be seen how Beijing, in practice, will react.

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