On January 11, 2020, general elections will be held in Taiwan to elect the President and Vice President, as well as all 113 members of the unicameral Legislative Yuan. These elections are held every four years and are the highlight of the island’s political life.
The event has also received a great deal of attention from abroad over the last few years, closely watched by the Indo-Pacific region’s top players in the Big Political Game. This was the case during the last general election in 2016, for example, which culminated in the triumphant victory of the Democratic Progressive Party and its leader at the time, Tsai Ing‑wen, who was elected president, and the DPP also won the majority of parliamentary seats.
The difference between this pre-election period and the last one is that the outcome of the upcoming general elections is far less predictable. A year before the 2016 general election took place, the Kuomintang of China (Chinese Nationalist Party) which had been in power for two consecutive electoral terms was already well expected to suffer a crushing defeat. The results of the local elections held in November 2014 served as the barometer of public opinion in Taiwan, which the DPP won in a convincing victory.
At first it seemed as if the (political) youth of the first woman to be elected to the presidential office in 2016 has an appeal, along with her high level of education and energy, which would surely guarantee the electorate’s lasting support for the new President and the party she led.
This makes the heavy loss suffered by the DPP in the local elections at the end of 2018 all the more surprising, just a year before the coming general elections. There was no straightforward reason for this defeat, which has been previously discussed in part by NEO.
The same question that was asked four years ago before the last election has now come up again: will the results of the local elections held a year prior to the general election once again serve as a barometer of public opinion?
The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that Tsai Ing‑wen experienced a short period of uncertainty after she resigned as leader of the DPP, taking full responsibility for the Party’s loss in the local elections. There had been doubts over whether she would run for a second presidential term. However, she quickly regained her “political composure”, mainly through the work she has been doing in the international arena.
Tsai Ing‑wen is now one of the top three presidential candidates. Han Kuo-yu will be running as the Kuomintang nominee, who is the Mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-largest city, and won the Party’s primaries in July. The third candidate is James Soong Chu-yu, Chairman the People First Party, who received about 13% of the vote in the previous presidential elections, and has generally been a serial candidate in Taiwan’s presidential elections.
As before, the real struggle for the presidential office and the parliamentary majority will play out between the DPP and the Kuomintang. Both of these parties along with their presidential nominees for Taiwan’s top job have each got their own “sympathizers” in other countries, who are among the world’s top political players.
Beijing has long firmly sided with the Kuomintang of China, which had once been a sworn enemy of the Communist Party of China from the 1930s until the early 1990s. That was until the DPP formed in Taiwan, which more or less clearly expresses the sentiments of the Taiwanese people who refuse to consider themselves part of the “mainland” China, and who view Taiwan as a separate nation, entitled to its own statehood.
The Kuomintang (also known as “the Chinese Nationalist Party”) bases its ideology on the same thesis as the Communist Party of China (CPC), “the one-China policy”, but of course the Kuomintang has its own interpretation. In addition, based on the Kuomintang’s rhetoric, the Party supports Beijing’s key “1992 Consensus”, according to which Taiwan should eventually be unified with mainland China within the “one country, two systems” framework.
However, the Kuomintang have been in no hurry to implement this “Consensus” in reality, even when the Party was in power from 2008 to 2016 (for two consecutive electoral terms). Messages were sent to Beijing during this period, along the lines of: “politics can wait, but let’s continue to develop ties across the Taiwan Strait, mainly in the economic sphere.”
Given that the DPP is also in favor of developing the same ties, but does not try to pretend that this could lead to “Taiwan becoming part of China”, the differences between these two parties in this key issue for Beijing lie, it could be argued, more in the styles of political rhetoric. In essence, the Chinese leadership is supporting “the lesser of two evils.”
The last time the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China indicated which party he prefers was in July 2018, six months before the upcoming 2020 general elections, when President XI Jinping hosted a delegation of various politicians from Taiwan in Beijing, led by former Kuomintang Chairman Lien Chan.
The motivation behind America’s interest in Taiwanese affairs has to do with the island’s extremely important strategic location, particularly in light of the US’s major confrontation playing out with China.
There is no doubt that Washington would like to see domestic political forces align in Taiwan. The US sides with the DPP, although the Americans had been getting along quite well with the Kuomintang up to a point. For example, American arms were sold to Taiwan during Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency, the former Chairman of the Kuomintang. By the way, it was Ma Ying-jeou who sent the Kuomintang’s message to Beijing.
As for incumbent President Tsai Ing‑wen, it seems she has received signals of support from Washington, both during her own “occasional visits” to the United States, and during the frequent trips made by prominent US Congress members to Taiwan.
The results of the upcoming elections will be watched closely by Japan, which has been taking fairly cautious steps (so far, keeping an eye on Beijing) to establish relations with Taiwan. Moreover, Tokyo does not seem too interested in which political party wins Taiwan’s elections, as both the majority of Taiwanese citizens and the main political parties express a positive attitude towards Japan. There is a view held (based on opinion polls) that Japan is even more “loved” in Taiwan than the United States.
This is actually the fundamental difference between the attitude that Koreans and Taiwanese people have towards Japan. For example, the Taiwanese do not have any negative memories of Taiwan’s “colonial past”. It is quite the opposite. In any case, the Taiwanese have not made any “historical” claims against Japan.
It is likely that in these very favorable conditions, Tokyo will have to exercise a great deal of political sensitivity in choosing how to develop relations with Taipei. After all, the success of an extremely important trend for the entire Indo-Pacific is “at stake” here — the political relations established between two of Asia’s top regional powers — which the Chinese leader’s first planned visit to Japan could boost significantly.
Tokyo’s pursuit of tactical success in Taiwan could derail this strategic plan for relations with China. Beijing already has reason to be suspicious about Tokyo’s plans for foreign policy. For example, comments were recently made in NEO about how Japan is developing comprehensive relations with India. It would be inadvisable if Japan were to give China more reasons to question its foreign policy.
Overall, there are some serious reasons to keep a close eye on how Taiwan’s general election plays out, which will be held next year on January 11. After all, we should not forget that the results will have an important impact on the Big Political Game currently being played in the wider Indo-Pacific.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.