Taiwan Midterm Elections: Hints for the 2020 Presidential Election?
Photo Credit: Getty Images
By Tai Wei Lim

Taiwan Midterm Elections: Hints for the 2020 Presidential Election?

Jan. 09, 2019  |     |  0 comments

In 2016, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) swept into power when the Taiwanese people voted for their first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, with an agenda for change. Some voters were upset they were left out of the economic boom experienced by Taiwanese business individuals. Others felt that the Ma Ying-jeou administration had swayed too closely to Beijing. Therefore, the Kuomintang (KMT) was punished for these and other alleged reasons in the presidential election of 2016.


The Tsai administration made sweeping changes. She touted the “Go South” policy to focus economic attention on India and Southeast Asia as alternatives for being too close to the Chinese economy. Tsai also championed gender rights and drew closer to the Trump administration in Washington DC. She became the first Taiwanese president to congratulate the candidate-elect in a US election. Bilateral contacts between the two bureaucracies increased at all levels.


Tsai practiced strategic ambiguity on the issue of the 1992 consensus that raised Beijing’s suspicions about her intentions. While many in Taiwan admired Tsai’s steadfast stand on resisting political China, the same crowd wondered how much pressure Taiwan could take from economic China. Herein lies the conundrum. Tsai tried to change the use of the name “Taipei” in international events, including sports events. Voters rejected the idea of competing under the name “Taiwan” instead of “Chinese Taipei.” Beijing accused her administration of politicizing sports and she appeared tough on China and Beijing. At times, Tsai vowed to strengthen Taiwanese military strength and even used military expansion and upgrading as a means to boost the economy. Tsai also increased contact with the Western democracies. Spurned, Beijing got some of Taipei’s diplomatic allies to switch recognition.


In the November 2018 local elections, the voters reversed the trends started in 2016 and delivered a shocking defeat to the DPP. With this, there were doubts and uncertainties over the Go South policy or maintaining the status quo in cross-straits relations. To take responsibility for the defeat, Tsai made known her resignation as chairperson of her party and persuaded the Taiwanese Premier to stay on in his post to oversee the post-election situation and transition. After the elections, the KMT came back to power in almost all the major cities in Taiwan, save Taipei still being controlled by an independent backed up by the DPP in the past.


Overall, the DPP was defeated in 7 of 13 cities and counties in which it was the incumbent. It was also the first time that KMT made inroads into Kaohsiung. The DPP expected that electoral support would be shaved off after the euphoria of 2016 but were not prepared for a stunning defeat. In fact, on Saturday morning on November 24, Tsai was still smiling in front of cameras as she lined up to cast her vote in Taipei. By the time the results were declared, the DPP was aware that all was not going well for the Tsai administration.  


With the results disclosed, the aftermath is now filled with cries of triumph, self-reflection and unproven accusations of Chinese interference.

The KMT must also contend with credible independents like Ko Wen-je, a former surgeon who is charming and who has defied the excesses of the DPP’s pro-independence stance while rejecting the KMT’s pro-reunification position.

Some celebrated the functioning democracy in Taiwan, the only Chinese society in the world to be practising liberal democracy. Analyses for the causes of DPP defeat were diverse. It’s the economy, some argued. It appeared that the income gap and not necessarily a weak economy was the cause of the defeat. The environmentally conscious also considered air pollution and contamination to be a bone of contention. It could be a combination of all these factors: environmental degradation, weaker economic growth, or the frozen bilateral relations with China. The voters also handed a defeat to Tsai’s initiative to push through gay marriage. Taiwanese voters appeared to be more conservative than originally thought, especially the Confucian-minded and Christian groups. Although the referendum was defeated, the Taiwanese appeared to open-minded towards some form of civil union.


For some, the election results represented possibilities for retooling relations with Beijing, but others fear this would send the wrong signals to Beijing that their high-pressure tactics and leverage were working. Many scrutinized Taiwan’s China policy, and they wondered if there would be changes. The presidential election is only slightly more than a year away. All eyes are on the ultimate prize. Will the KMT reclaim power again? And if the KMT comes back to power, has it learnt its lessons or will they move away from Tsai’s close relations with Washington DC and the West? The election results were a strike back by Beijing-friendly elements in Taiwanese society.


During Ma’s tenure, Taiwan signed more than 20 agreements with China related to trade, logistics, transportation, and the economy. Will this sort of pragmatic arrangements return to Taiwan? There were also unsubstantiated rumors about possible mainland investments in Kaohsiung. Some in the KMT were already asking for more dialogue and talks with Beijing. The deep blue factions also asked for closer relations with Beijing. There were also KMT voices calling the party to be humbler and more accessible to the public, supposedly learning from the mistakes that the DPP made in their tenure. The elections were supposed to be a litmus test and referendum on the DPP’s policies and testing the waters for the presidential election. The DPP’s explanation for the defeat was that the voters expected a higher standard for Tsai’s government.


But the KMT stalwarts had smelled blood, and they believed that the voters had refuted the DPP’s hardline anti-China stance and policies. Some potential presidential materials are already waiting in the wings. Nationalist populist and former parliamentarian Han Kuo-yu won 53.8 percent of the vote in Kaohsiung. Han is not just charismatic but he works up crowds well in an aggressive and robust manner. He has the backing of youths, which is unusual for his party. His DPP rival was bland and concentrated on high tech ventures. It appears that the next presidential candidate must be social media friendly, accessible to members of the public, and populistically charismatic. She or he must not tread too closely to Beijing’s tune and yet be friendly enough to keep trade, transit and economic exchanges going, strengthening them and not weakening them.


The KMT must also contend with credible independents like Ko Wen-je, a former surgeon who is charming and who has defied the excesses of the DPP’s pro-independence stance while rejecting the KMT’s pro-reunification position. Ko relied on the internet search engine Google, asking voters to check his background rather than airing his opinions through a presidential debate. He also produced a video with rapper Chunyan, making Ko one of the snazziest and most packaged candidates in Taiwan. One can expect such theatrics to continue in the 2020 presidential election. By some estimates, nearly 50 percent of Taiwanese do not identify strongly with a particular political party. So Ko appeals to this section of the population. Ko has also ambiguously said once that both sides of the Straits are one family, incurring verbal attacks from the DPP. This alone may attract Beijing’s support for Ko in the presidential election. Another item that may attract Beijing to support him was his realist perception that Taiwan was merely a product on the shelf for the US in its dealings with China.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *