Since the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was trounced by the Kuomintang (KMT) in the nine-in-one local elections in November 2018, most public opinion polls found that compared to other possible presidential candidates, popular support for Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in the 2020 presidential election has been consistently the lowest. However, about six months before the 2020 presidential election, many polls showed a surprising turn: Tsai’s popularity has significantly risen to the leading position. How to understand Tsai’s rising popularity? Will she win the re-election in 2020?
There have been several important changes to Tsai and her administration since the local elections, which might help boost her popularity. First of all, while her administration pushed through some highly controversial reforms before the local elections, it has stopped launching similar reform battles since then. Those reforms are the major reasons underlying the widespread social discontent with Tsai and her administration, which had led to the DPP’s debacle in the local elections. For example, the pension reform greatly hurt the interests of the military, government and education sectors’ retirees; the twice-amended Labor Standards Act dissatisfied both employers and employees; legalizing same-sex marriage was criticized by both the conservative and the liberal camp, because each camp believed the government had compromised too much to their rival camp. In contrast, during the past seven months after the local elections, the Tsai administration were much less protested by the public because it stopped promoting highly controversial reforms. In hindsight, we can see that Tsai’s strategy is to finish the hardest reforms before the local elections, so that she would have a much easier year for her re-election after that. Tsai’s rising popularity seems to suggest that her strategy has started working.
Another change is Tsai herself. She has successfully improved her public image as the firm and able defender of Taiwan’s democracy in the face of China’s rising threats. After the local elections, the DPP’s key hope for the presidential election is to mobilize the society’s anti-Beijing sentiment and then turn it into votes for the DPP in 2020. Internally, Tsai and her administration has raised the public awareness about various negative influence imposed by China on Taiwan, and passed a series of bills in a short time to protect Taiwan’s national security from China’s threats. Externally, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech on Taiwan in January 2019 and Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests in June and July provided golden opportunities for Tsai to improve her popularity by publicly showing her prompt and firm rejection of the “one country, two systems.”
Particularly, the impact of Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests on Taiwan is unexpectedly profound, which has contributed to the further rise of Tsai’s popularity. When Xi delivered the speech on Taiwan in January, he had hoped to promote Taiwan society’s identification with China by emphasizing the historical, cultural, economic and social connections between the two sides and proposing moderate ways for peaceful reunification. However, in her quick response to this speech, Tsai framed it as a rising threat from the Chinese top leader to Taiwan as the model for unification proposed by Xi is still the “one country, two systems” which is unacceptable to most Taiwanese. Her prompt and definite position on this important issue helped her win back many supporters lost by the DPP in the local elections. Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests in June further justified Tsai’s position since the protests confirmed the public’s impression that the “one country, two systems” model does not work for Hong Kong and will not work for Taiwan either.
Before the Hong Kong protests, Tsai’s popularity consistently ranked third or fourth among all the possible presidential candidates in most public opinion polls; after the June 9 Hong Kong protest, her popularity soared and topped all five polls conducted for the DPP presidential primary between June 10 and 12. After the protests, not only Tsai, all the major politicians, including the most pro-Beijing KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, had slammed the “one country, two systems” at public gatherings. Various social groups also organized demonstrations in several cities in Taiwan to support the Hong Kong protests. Evidently, the protests have made it harder for the Chinese government to sell the “one country, two systems” to Taiwan and have further boosted Tsai’s popularity.
The rising anti-Beijing sentiment will surely help Tsai win over many young voters’ hearts, but how to maintain or further promote the nationalistic sentiment in the remaining six months before the election will be a challenge to her.
To some extent, Tsai’s strategy for re-election is similar to the former president Chen Shui-bian’s in 2002 when he became more confrontational against Beijing to boost popular support for his 2004 re-election. Chen’s victory in the re-election may be largely attributed to his success in mobilizing the Taiwanese nationalism during his re-election campaign, which is also what Tsai is trying to do, although in much more moderate ways. A recent public opinion poll showed that the Taiwanese nationalism has stopped declining and started rising substantially, suggesting that Tsai has effectively pushed the public sentiment toward the direction in favor of the DPP.
Tsai has been enjoying a unique external advantage that Chen did not have: Washington’s increasing support for Taiwan. Actually, since Chen adopted the confrontational strategy against Beijing in 2002, Washington tried very hard to press him to withdraw from this strategy by publicly showing less support for him. This was due to Washington’s strategic cooperation with China to fight terrorism after the 911 attack in 2001. In stark contrast, since 2018 Washington’s rising containment of China has raised Taiwan’s strategic value to the US, the anti-Beijing consensus in the US Congress has helped it pass three pro-Taiwan bills unanimously and rapidly, and US-Taiwan exchanges in many fields have grown visibly. The escalating US-China tensions are helping Taipei not only politically, but also economically: some Taiwanese investment in China has been returning to Taiwan and Taiwan’s export to the US has also increased consecutively. Understandably, these new developments have contributed to Tsai’s rising popularity as well.
The uncertainty in the two major rival camps, the KMT and the independent Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, has also contributed to the rising popular support for Tsai. The KMT is being fully occupied by an unusual primary: the two major candidates, Han Kuo-yu and Terry Gou, are both unconventional KMT politicians. Despite repeated call for solidarity by the KMT chairman Wu Den-yih, the public still can feel the tensions among the major candidates. These KMT candidates have to fight with each other in the primary, which might make their attack on Tsai uncoordinated and less powerful. Ke Wen-je will be a highly competitive presidential candidate if he joins the election. He has enjoyed much stronger support among the youth, who were Tsai’s strongest supporters in the 2016 presidential elections. Generally, he shares more common supporters with the DPP than with the KMT. But because he has not made up his mind to run for the election, these common supporters might show higher support for Tsai. In contrast, Tsai has won the DPP’s primary through effectively mobilizing supporters and by a large margin. As the first official and promising presidential candidate, her popularity is enjoying some first-runner advantage.
Despite these favorable developments, it is too early to tell whether Tsai could maintain the rising trend of her popularity as new factors will come out to influence the election. After the KMT chooses its most popular presidential candidate in mid-July, Tsai will face more substantive attacks from the hopefully consolidated KMT. On the other hand, if the Beijing-friendly Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je joins the election, he might be able to constrain the anti-Beijing sentiment from further growing and win over more supporters from the DPP camp. Moreover, the youth, who are mostly independent voters, contributed greatly to Tsai’s victory in the last presidential election. However, they have become increasingly disappointed with Tsai since 2016 and might become less supportive of her, especially if their favorite politician Ko joins the election. The rising anti-Beijing sentiment will surely help Tsai win over many young voters’ hearts, but how to maintain or further promote the nationalistic sentiment in the remaining six months before the election will be a challenge to her.
The Chinese government has well learned its lessons from past counterproductive aggressions against Taiwan during the election season, and will restrain itself from further stimulating Taiwan society. Protests in Hong Kong will gradually subside as well. The KMT and Ko will try every way possible to divert the public’s attention from value and identity issues, such as democracy and China threat, to bread-and-butter and interest issues, such as economy and governance. When external stimulation gradually declines and internal public concerns shift to the DPP’s disadvantaged topics, Tsai’s rising popularity may not be sustainable.
The Taiwanese public opinions are very sensitive to unpredictable factors, such as the Hong Kong protests, and therefore, highly volatile. History indicates that Tsai will have a good chance to win the re-election, as the two previous presidents, Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou, all won the re-election. But it is also likely that the Taiwanese voters will surprise us again, as they have done in the 2018 local elections.
A shorter version of this essay is published by Taiwan Insight.