We have noted on more than one occasion the growing prominence of Taiwan in all the aspects of the relationship between the two world powers. Hence, Beijing and Washington observed the local elections, which took place on the island on 24 November, with great interest.
It is worth noting that, on the same day, the electorate had the opportunity to answer 10 questions connected to key issues of different nature, facing the Taiwanese society (from legalizing same sex marriages to the future of nuclear power).
The results of this election day may turn into an accurate gauge of what the outcomes of the most important event in the Taiwanese political life could be in spring 2020, when the elections to choose the President and the Legislative Yuan will take place.
In any case, the previous election cycle was indeed a very accurate measure of what was to come. In local elections, which were held in November 2014, the Kuomintang, the oldest party in the nation that had been founded by the father of modern China Sun Yat-sen at the beginning of the 20th century, suffered a devastating defeat. Whilst the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won triumphantly.
In January 2016, an analogous scenario repeated itself. The DPP won convincingly in both, the election for the Legislative Yuan and the presidential one. At the time, the rising star of Taiwanese politics and the leader of the DPP, Tsai Ing-wen, took up the highest government post.
The first stage of the new electoral cycle, which had begun in November, has shown that the pendulum of public opinion was swinging in the opposite direction, and just as abruptly as four years ago. This time around the DPP suffered an equally devastating loss, with one of the consequences being that Tsai Ing-wen left her post as the party leader.
Still, the DPP has almost one a half years at their disposal to halt the pendulum, which represents the Taiwanese mindset, that is moving in an adverse direction for the party.
Still, before we attempt to understand what has been happening in the last four years in Taiwan as well as its external environment to so radically change the voting preferences of the Taiwanese, let us try and answer the question “What does the recurrent (approximately once in 8 years, i.e. with an interval of 2 election cycles) change in party affiliation of the island’s leaders mean, in terms of internal and foreign policies of Taiwan?”.
In the end, answering the question posed above requires a more or less comprehensible description of the differences between the fundamental party views and how these differences affect politics in practice.
This is definitely not easy to do. We could only attempt to position the present day Kuomintang and DPP on the current (for the sake of argument) spectrum of party politics. The Kuomintang can be placed on the center-right side, while the DPP on the center-left one.
If we consider the big picture, emerging on the table where the regional political game is being played, one of its key elements remains the stance both parties take on the issue (and, at the same time, the main problem) of establishing relations between Taipei and Beijing.
If we step back from the truly noticeable divergence in their rhetoric on this issue, then, from the author’s point of view, the differences in approaches between the Kuomintang and the DPP towards this key issue are most probably stylistic in nature.
Yes, it was in 1992 that the Kuomintang signed a so called Consensus with Beijing, which maintained that Taiwan is part of China. Conversely, the DPP has not left a paper trail of this nature.
However, strictly speaking, in this particular case the Kuomintang, we may say, did not betray its core values, i.e. the fact that this party and its allies have ended up in Taiwan only temporarily (after the renowned events of 1949). In the future (at the time considered to be very near) Taiwan would become part of the mainland territory again, where the party would be at the helm of “unified China”, which Taiwan would also belong to.
Naturally, the 1992 Consensus does not include details about Kuomintang’s true intentions. Afterwards, the party did not only avoid further discussions about this document, but also strove to remember it as seldom as possible. Especially since voicing the Kuomintang’s ambitions in public, at the time when China was turning into the second world power, began to look more and more ridiculous.
Hence, the President Ma Ying-jeou, who represented this party from 2008 to 2016, responded to increasingly impatient reminders from Beijing about the 1992 Consensus by suggesting that politics could wait and it was imperative to continue building on the successes in the economic, transport and cultural spheres.
He thereby, on the one hand, evoked displeasure from Beijing and, on the other hand, induced growing fears among the Taiwanese population about the possibility of being stifled in the amicable embrace of the mainland.
The media rightly viewed the highly unsuccessful 2014 and 2016 election (the local and the general ones, respectively) results for the Kuomintang as the expression of Taiwanese distrust towards, for the most part, the foreign policy aspect of their pre-election party campaign. To the Taiwanese electorate, it seemed (most likely not for a good reason) that, at that time, the island had embarked on a course towards closer relations with China.
This was, thus, viewed as a de factor threat to Taiwan’s independent status on the international stage, which the population of the island is quite keen on preserving without de jure so to speak. Still, the Taiwanese have always supported the development of trade and economic, as well as cultural ties with China, which began after the 1992 Consensus had been signed. Both the Kuomintang and the DPP, who have alternatively ruled the island, have supported this policy course.
The opening up of a giant market on the mainland turned out to be highly beneficial for the economy of one of the Asian Tigers, which Taiwan has long ago become. For instance, trade and economic ties with PRC have allowed Taiwan to survive the 2008 financial world crisis relatively painlessly.
It is widely believed that with Tsai Ing-wen’s election to the post of President in 2016, firstly, a pro-American (and pro-Japanese) aspect of the nation’s foreign policy became more and more prominent. And secondly, apparently, the island embarked on a course to receive a de jure independent status.
From the author’s point of view, these new foreign policy initiatives by Tsai Ing-wen are a direct result of the heightened rivalry on the international arena between the two world powers and (therefore) Washington’s more active policy course towards Taiwan.
The US sold weapons to the island even when the Kuomintang was in power. It was not Taiwan that prompted the adoption of a new US law in January of this year that would allow American and Taiwanese officials to make official mutual visits. It is doubtful that the Kuomintang administration (had it remained in power after 2016) would have objected to the construction of a new building in Taipei of a de facto US.
As for the 1992 Consensus, despite DPP’s refusal to treat this document as the foundation for its relations with China, Tsai Ing-wen, while officially occupying the post of President, never voiced her views about it in public. Her stance, by and large, was not very different from that of Ma Ying-jeou.
Nevertheless, the Taiwanese most likely grew weary of “too sharp of a turn” towards, the USA this time around. Hence, the main message for the current leadership from the 24 November elections can be summed up as the electorate’s desire for the government to exercise more restraint in its relations with both leading world powers, and to avoid the possibility of having to irrevocably choose between the two of them. In this sense, the fact that the Taiwanese answered “no” in response to a more peripheral question (about sport) during the referendum is worthy of note.
The electorate had the options of either showing support for or rejecting the proposal to change its team name at the upcoming Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. Until recently Beijing had never opposed the idea of Taiwan participating as a separate team in various sporting events as long as its official name included the words “Chinese Taipei (or Taiwan)”.
The island residents were given the option of supporting the idea of changing the team name to “Taiwan”. And the response to this proposal was along the following lines “No, we don’t need matches played in this manner. Why should we antagonize our, we could say, breadwinner for any and every little thing?” Such a response is a reflection of the common sense that a typical conservative citizen of any nation possesses.
This very same conservatism was readily apparent in the electorate’s refusal to support legalizing same sex marriages. Having submerged itself in the mainstream culture of current (mad) socio-cultural norms, the DPP took a risk by including this question in the referendum.
The general message from the electorate to the current President, Tsai Ing-wen, which is also reflected by the results of the 24 November elections, is more or less as follows “She is intelligent, beautiful and we continue to love her. But it seems as if our dear president is slightly off course. Perhaps she needs time to cool off.”
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”