22.01.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

General Election in Taiwan: What’s Next?

_17GA006_On January 16 this year, a general election was held in Taiwan, in which the new president and vice president were elected and the entire composition of the Parliament was changed. As expected, Tsai Ing-wen, the current leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was without question elected for the main state office of the island.

Eric Chu, a member of the Kuomintang that ruled for previous 8 years, was in second place and with about 31% of the vote. Third place with 12.8% of the vote was occupied by James Soong – the leader of the People First Party.

The situation regarding the balance of power in Parliament is likely to be more complicated, because it consists of a number of independent candidates and representatives of small parties.

We should say a few words about the new President of Taiwan. Tsai Ing-wen, 59, studied law in Taiwan, the US and the UK and has a doctorate. At the beginning of her political career she was a member of the Kuomintang, but in 2000 she was invited to the Government formed by the DPP that had won the election, and in 2004 she became a member of this party.

She is considered to be a supporter of the state sovereignty of Taiwan, although she has avoided talking about it openly in recent years. We can expect that, along with the attempts to prevent the degradation of the contacts with the “mainland” established during the rule of the Kuomintang, she will expand relations with major geopolitical opponents of China, i.e. the USA and Japan.

The results of the elections allow us to state a crushing defeat of the Kuomintang, which has long been quite expected. The last polls of the moods of the electorate conducted a week before the election confirmed that Eric Chu had hopelessly dropped behind.

However, it was possible to predict such an outcome of the general election back in late 2014 when the election of local authorities was held. (). At the conclusion of that election, outgoing President (and leader of the Kuomintang), Ma Ying-jeou, called on his supporters to “wipe their tears” and prepare well for the general election.

But no miracle happened during the year since then and there were no significant reasons for it to occur. The main factors that led the Kuomintang to electoral disaster a year ago had remained unchanged by early 2016. Two closely interrelated factors may be singled out among them.

Firstly, Ma Ying-jeou’s policy of strengthening comprehensive contacts with the “mainland” caused a growing wariness on the part of the majority of Taiwanese who feared that the island would gradually lose its de-facto independent status.

And, although the real politic of President Ma was aimed at protracting this status indefinitely, its declarative acceptance of the so-called “1992 Consensus” (based on which the principle of “one China” is formed) has not contributed to the popularity of both Ma Ying-jeou and the party he leads.

The results of a sociological survey conducted a month before the election by Taiwan’s leading analytical centre Taiwan Brain Trust showed that the aforementioned policy was contrary to the key trends in the attitudes of the Taiwanese both to their own identity and the status of the island.

In particular, it became clear once again that the vast majority of the population of the island called themselves Taiwanese and 67% of respondents considered Taiwan as a sovereign state and almost as many people did not want political unification of the island with the “mainland” in any form.

These political sentiments, unfavourable for the Kuomintang, were reinforced by the growing irritation among the Taiwanese at the contradictory implications of strengthening the economic ties with China. On the one hand, the huge market of the “mainland” helps Taiwan’s export-oriented economy to survive the global economic turbulence.

However, against the background of a relative macroeconomic well-being of the island, the tendency towards stratification of the population by income is becoming increasingly noticeable now when the main beneficiaries of the development of relations with China have become major Taiwanese companies and primarily their management.

As it turned out, Beijing’s attempt to correct the situation that was unfavourable for the Kuomintang by organizing the first Summit in the history of relations with Taipei had no success. It was held in early November 2015 in Singapore on the occasion of one of the ASEAN forums. It is possible that this meeting even played a counter-productive role because it was used by the DPP to discredit Ma Ying-jeou (and, consequently, the Kuomintang) as a politician “dependent on Beijing”.

It is noteworthy that Eric Chu (who replaced the candidate Hong Soozhu only three months before the election because the leadership of the Kuomintang considered her position to be completely hopeless) conducted his campaign under the slogan of “single Taiwan”. It was an obvious departure from the Kuomintang’s constant slogan of “single China”, and was a forced step that was too late, however.

The intuitive feel of a typical inhabitant of Taiwan concerning the key issue of the past election can be reduced to the all-encompassing phrase: “China and Taiwan should maintain a certain distance between them“. Every political force in Taiwan and even, perhaps, Beijing will agree with that.

Everything lies in the particular interpretation of this “certain distance”. The results of the past election showed that this particular idea is firmly lodged in the average Taiwanese citizen’s mind, something that would hardly be satisfy Beijing.

One of the key issues, that has attained an almost global significance, concerns the impact of the outcome of the election in Taiwan on relations between two major world powers. The urgency of this problem is due to the exceptional strategic importance of the island in the geopolitical speculations of both superpowers.

The publication of the article titled “Taiwan frontrunner may create trouble for Washington” in the Chinese publication, the Global Times, on the eve of the election is remarkable in this regard.

Noting Tsai Ing-wen’s demonstrative refusal to publicly state her position regarding the “1992 Consensus”, the author believes that it does not match the US position voiced by Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Adviser to the President, three days before the election in Taiwan.

The author referred to the statement to reporters made by the US high official on January 13 in which it was said that the US did not support any of the candidates in the upcoming elections, as “the two sides” (i.e., the future president of Taiwan and the Chinese leadership) were called on to avoid “an escalation of tensions, and for the preservation of peace and a dialogue.

In its comments to this statement Reuters recalled that the United States adheres to the “single China policy”, i.e. did not have any formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but, in accordance with the Act of 1979 (Taiwan Relations Act 1979), assisted in strengthening the defence potential of the island.

As an illustration of the last thesis, it was pointed out that there was a decision to sell American weapons to Taiwan at the amount of $1.83 billion adopted by the US administration in mid-December 2015.

We can hardly see any concerns of the United States regarding the occupation of the presidential office in Taiwan by Tsai Ing-wen in the cited words of B. Rhodes. Moreover, her statements before the election were mainly well-considered and quite careful.

Thus, ten days before the election, Tsai Ing-wen once again talked about the need to preserve the status quo in relations with China. However, in the same statement she considered it possible for her to appeal to the leadership of China asking about the “disappearance” of five Hong Kong booksellers who sold edition of a “separatist” plan regarding Beijing.

An indirect response to that request (without mentioning, of course, any booksellers and Tsai Ing-wen) was the statement by the Foreign Minister of China Wang Yi that Beijing’s policy regarding Hong Kong remains unchanged. When translated from the formal and diplomatic language to the common language, the intended recipient was defined to whom the future president of independent Taiwan was sent to search for the objects of her request.

A week before the election, Tsai Ing-wen said again that her plans did not include any provocations of the”giant neighbour”. However, (if there was a desire) Beijing could see a challenge in the word “neighbour”.

The election in Taiwan actualized the Taiwan issue as a whole during the ongoing presidential race in the United States.
For example, Marco Rubio, one of the leading Republican candidates, noted that if the issue of annexation of the Crimea by Russia should be treated as a fait accompli (“that no one can influence”), he “would not allow anything like this in Asia Pacific” if he were elected the president of the United States. It is obvious that he meant a possible worsening of the situation in the Taiwan Strait after the change of government in Taipei.

However, the statement of a representative of the Taiwan Affairs Office under the Government of China on Beijing’s unwillingness to influence the election process on the island (and, consequently, their results) gives hope for a more or less peaceful passing the next barrier by the US-China relations that could well created by the general election in Taiwan.

The answer to the question of what happens next depends on the nature of relations in general between the two major world powers, and, of course, on the policy of the new leadership of Taiwan.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


Please select digest to download: