On Jan. 16, the people of Taiwan handed the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a landslide victory in the presidential and legislative elections and elected DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s first woman president. Tsai easily defeated the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party’s Eric Chu by more than 3 million votes (56.2 percent to 31 percent), and the DPP for the first time in history gained an absolute majority in the national legislature with 68 seats (up from 40) while the KMT retained only 35 seats (down from 64). Though political pundits have highlighted the theme of this election as one of change or of Taiwanese identity, this was more importantly an election of rejection.
China and many global observers had repeatedly warned that a DPP victory could seriously jeopardize the warm and peaceful cross-strait relations that China-friendly KMT had established over the past eight years. They pointed to the high tensions and fear of invasion that underscored Taiwan’s relation with China during DPP’s Chen Shui-bian administration from 2000 to 2008. Nevertheless, polls indicate that 56 percent of Taiwanese citizens are dissatisfied with the current state of cross-strait relations. On top of that, the Taiwanese people were angered by a video released hours before the election of a teenage pop star apologizing, under China’s pressure, for waving a Taiwanese flag. As a result, the voters disregarded these cautions, risked the economic benefits of a close relation with China and rooted decisively for the DPP, a party known for its pro-independence stance.
Rejecting President Ma
The election results also represented a staunch rejection of outgoing President Ma’s beliefs and policies. Despite what Ma has touted as his many accomplishments, the Taiwanese people felt the serious effects of growing youth unemployment, stagnant low wages and high commodity prices. According to a survey, more than 70 percent of Taiwanese citizens are dissatisfied with Ma’s governance. Furthermore, even though Ma believed he achieved historic successes by meeting with Chinese Communist leader Xi Jinping and maintaining stability across the Taiwan Strait, voters thoroughly disapproved of his China policy, dubbing it as too dependent on China. They instead voted for the DPP, which wishes to diversify its trade relations to avoid overreliance on China.
Viewing Ma’s KMT as a party that is out of touch with society and the new generation, the Taiwanese people punished the party by replacing veteran KMT legislators like Lin Yu-fang and Yang Chiung-ying with young political amateurs. Moreover, the electorate resisted the KMT’s new generation of leaders like Eric Chu and Hau Lung-pin. Not only did Chu lose the presidential race, his party lost eight out of 10 legislative seats in his home city of New Taipei. Similarly, Hau, once the Taipei mayor and a strong potential presidential candidate, could not even win a legislative seat in Keelung, a traditional KMT stronghold.
Rejecting status quo
Lastly, this was an election that challenged the status quo. Historically, charismatic and eloquent demagogues like Chu would have won the presidency. This time, however, the soft-spoken, awkward, policy wonk Tsai dominated. Additionally, the New Power Party, a less than two-year-old party that rose from the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement, cut across the deeply imbedded pan-blue/green divide that characterized Taiwanese politics and rallied youth support to secure five legislative seats, emerging as the third largest party in Taiwan. Notably, these legislators include a scholar and a rock star.
Moving forward, while many are wary of Taiwan’s future relations with China, observers should watch Taiwan’s relations with other countries closely. Since the DPP cannot rely solely on China for economic growth, Tsai will look to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Japan and the U.S. for new trade partnerships. All of these countries currently have a tense relationship with China and may work with Taiwan as a way to counter China’s influence over Asia. Meanwhile, across the strait, Hong Kong publishers critical of the Chinese regime have gone missing and Xi has only tightened control on China. Of concern to Xi, Taiwan’s blossoming democracy may invoke pro-democratic citizens of Hong Kong and China to demand more freedom and rule of law.
Aaron Huang is a research assistant for the Baker Institute China Studies Program. He is a Rice University sophomore majoring in economics and policy studies, and he will be interning at the Department of State’s East Asian Bureau this summer.