In early 2020, Taiwan will have its 7th presidential election since democratization. The past three months witnessed dramatic changes in Taiwan politics and creates more uncertainty in the 2020 presidential election. As the leading political parties of Taiwan, Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will have intense intra-party competitions to nominate their presidential candidates. Several prominent politicians in the two leading parties have started their election campaign, while the newly elected KMT Mayor of Kaohsiung, Han Kuo-yu and non-partisan candidate Ko Wen-je, Mayor of Taipei, are expected to run for the seat considering their high popularity rate.
The first two candidates are Eric Chu and the present President Tsai Ing-wen. Chu was the first KMT politician to announce his presidential bid, on the day after stepping down as the Mayor of New Taipei in December 2018. Chu has had rich experiences working in the administrative, legislative agencies of Taiwan and KMT, which certainly adds to his campaign. He was chosen as the KMT candidate for the 2016 presidential election, but was defeated by Tsai. Tsai announced her willingness to run for re-election in February 2019. She was suffering from a popularity crisis due to controversial policies in labor pension reform, homosexual marriage, forward-looking infrastructure investment, energy transition, and natural disaster management. However, since Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated Beijing’s intentions to unify the whole of China and proposed to achieve cross-Strait unification under the formula of the “One China, Two Systems”, Tsai responded with a tough speech and later outlined several major strategies to constrain China’s political and economic influence over the island. Her popularity rate stopped declining and bounced back to around 30 percent. Both Chu and Tsai faced fierce challenges within their parties.
In KMT, the former President of the Legislative Yuan, Wang Jin-pyng vowed to contest the KMT nomination for the 2020 election. He is famous for seemingly neutral political stances in Taiwan, is well-connected with both KMT and DPP politicians and is familiar with local political frictions. Despite his low popularity rate, particularly among the young people, Wang believed that DPP’s policy failures and his political mobilization abilities in middle and south Taiwan make his victory possible.
In DPP, a strong challenger to Tsai was her former Premier of the Executive Yuan, William Lai who launched his campaign in March 2019. Lai has a higher popularity rate than Tsai in most existing polls. His first two campaign promises are controversial. The first one is Taiwan independence. Lai reiterated his strong commitment to Taiwan independence even during his service as the Premier of the Executive Yuan. Tsai also prefers independence, but openly promises to respect the status quo across the Strait. From this perspective, Lai is on the extreme spectrum of DPP’s pro-independence beliefs, while Tsai is slightly more pragmatic and realistic in making her cross-Strait policies. Another major campaign of Lai’s is to pardon the former President Chen Shui-bian, who is currently on medical parole from a 20-year prison sentence for corruption and enjoys wide support in south Taiwan. Lai tends to consolidate his support from the deep-green party members.
Taipei Mayor Ko and Kaohsiung Mayor Han are the two most popular candidates expected to join the general election. As non-typical politicians, both Ko and Han are well accepted for their unique personality, leadership style, and activism in new media. Ko considers himself as the leader of the emerging “white” forces in Taiwan who are tired of the pan Blue and Green camps and their tense political competition. However, Ko seems to be marginalized as DPP and KMT start their election campaign. He is also known for his shaky political stances and occasionally controversial statements.
So far, DPP is at a disadvantage, but is not unlikely to win the presidency. However, it is almost sure that DPP will lose a lot of seats to the KMT in the Legislative Yuan.
Han is the emerging star of KMT and of the whole Taiwan. He trounced the DPP candidate Chen Chi-mai in a traditional pro-DPP city, Kaohsiung in the battle of the mayorship. What is more, his popular influence is beyond the city itself. The media and many pundits believed that Han should take the biggest credit for KMT’s victory in the local elections in 2018, and helped most KMT candidates win in south Taiwan. Since he took office in December 2018, Han has been focusing on economic development and city construction. He particularly wants to attract more external investments, develop local tourism, and promote local agricultural and fishery products. The problem is that Han has not publicly expressed his willingness to run in the 2020 presidential election, although the median voters are supporting him and KMT wants him to lead the general election for the sake of party interests.
The coming elections has attracted much attention from the media and pundits. First of all, will Tsai or Lai become the DPP candidate for the 2020 election? Existing polls revealed that Lai is more likely to defeat Tsai in the intra-party election, which means Tsai will probably become the first one-term president since the democratization of Taiwan. What is more, if Tsai fails to get the nomination in DPP’s April primary elections, she will become an interim leader and major policies seems likely to be stalled. The second big concern is whether Han is willing to register as a KMT candidate. It seems problematic for him to join the presidential election after serving as Kaohsiung Mayor for only a few months. Chu and Wang’s supporters within the KMT will also try to delegitimate Han’s possible campaign and expect Han to be the cheer leader for their favorable nominations in the coming election. The third question is how Taipei Mayor Ko’s possible campaign will complicate the picture. In a three-way race when two candidates share similar political beliefs and thus supporters, voters tend to shift their support to a second-favored candidate when their most-favored one is unlikely to win, making the strongest candidate less likely to win.
Cross-Strait relations will be a major focus of the 2020 presidential and general elections. Many analysts believe that the 2020 elections will trigger a huge debate over the future of Taiwan and its relations with mainland China. Both Tsai and Lai have raised the flag of defending Taiwan sovereignty against the political and economic influence of mainland China. KMT sticks to the 1992 consensus, which clarifies both Taiwan and mainland China belong to one China, but both sides across the Strait have different interpretations of the meaning of this “one China”. However, Xi has ambiguously redefined Beijing’s version of the “92 consensus”, highlighting that the purpose of the 1992 consensus is to achieve national unification. He proposes to discuss the Taiwan scheme of “One Country Two Systems”, which has pressured KMT to rethink its cross-Strait policies. As for Ko, he is intentionally ambiguous, so as to exploit political support from KMT and DPP supporters. During Ko’s recent visit to Washington, he outlined his international strategy termed as “Qin Mei He Zhong” (Close to America, but also friendly with China) in a speech at the Heritage Foundation.
It will probably take another two or three months to have the full lineup of presidential candidates, when DPP determine their candidate in April 2019, KMT in July, and Ko possibly in late July or even September. So far, DPP is at a disadvantage, but is not unlikely to win the presidency. However, it is almost sure that DPP will lose a lot of seats to the KMT in the Legislative Yuan. No matter which candidate wins, Taiwan politics and cross-Strait relations will enter a new era.